JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Forced into a Mississippi runoff, challenger Chris McDaniel and veteran Sen. Thad Cochran plunged into a three-week campaign Wednesday to pick a Republican candidate for the fall and settle the tea party's last, best attempt of the year to topple a pillar of the establishment.
McDaniel, a narrow leader in the vote tally, issued a statement from his campaign that cited his first-place finish as evidence of a "groundswell of energy behind his campaign to bring a true conservative agenda to Washington, D.C."
Cochran, 76 and seeking a seventh term, made a brief afternoon stop at a fast-food restaurant in a suburb of Jackson. He shook hands and posed for photographs with constituents, many of whom had been invited to the event.
Earlier, he and his allies sought to put the best face on a relatively weak showing at the ballot box after three decades in office spent directing federal funds to his economically distressed state. "We had a great day yesterday, and it is one more step toward making November Mississippi's moment when we take back the U.S. Senate," he said in a written statement.
Yet there were indications of concern among supporters of the Senate veteran. Asked about Cochran's prospects, fellow Mississippi Republican Sen. Roger Wicker paused at length before responding to reporters, "What do you think?" He then predicted Cochran's victory in the runoff and said he would give the party its best chance to "hold the seat for a Republican majority."
The third candidate in the race, real estate agent Tom Carey, said in an interview that he had a preference between Cochran and McDaniel but declined to disclose it.
"The two candidates need to talk about issues instead of the backbiting and backstabbing that they've done," Carey said, referring to the legal and political controversy that came when four supporters of McDaniel were arrested and charged in an alleged plot to illegally photograph Cochran's wife, who has dementia and lives in a nursing home.