ACROSS MISSISSIPPI — Locked in a race that won’t end, Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran and tea party-backed challenger Chris McDaniel pointed toward a possible June 24 run-off after battling to a near-draw yesterday in a primary that underscored Republican differences.
Unofficial returns from 98 percent of the state’s precincts showed McDaniel with slightly over 49 percent of the vote in a three-way race and Cochran with slightly less. It takes a majority by one candidate to avoid a run-off.
“For too long, we’ve been silent. For too long, we sat still. For too long, we let them have their way with us,” McDaniel told supporters late yesterday in a slap at the Washington establishment.
“It’s looking like a runoff,” conceded Rep. Gregg Harper, addressing a crowd of Cochran supporters.
Mississippi officials said the vote tally in their state did not include provisional ballots, at least some of them cast as a result of the state’s new voter ID law. Those voters have five days to furnish proof of residence. An official canvass could take longer, until June 13.
The contest was a race between a pillar of the GOP establishment who has helped funnel millions of dollars to his state and a younger state lawmaker who drew backing from tea party groups and former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. The incumbent stressed his seniority and proven ability to help Mississippi, while his challenger called for term limits and a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution.
The campaign took a turn toward the sensational when four men, all McDaniel supporters, were arrested and charged with surreptitiously taking photographs of Cochran’s 72-year-old wife, who suffers from dementia and has long lived in a nursing home.
The race was arguably the year’s last good chance for the tea party wing of the GOP to topple an establishment favorite in a Senate primary, following losses in Texas, North Carolina, Georgia and Kentucky.
In other races, incumbent congressman Steven Palazzo was on the cusp of securing the GOP nomination for his seat against Gene Taylor, the Democrat-turned-Republican trying to win his old job back. But the race remains too close to call.
Palazzo had just more than 50 percent of the vote against Taylor, who is trying to win back the seat he held for 22 years.
Meanwhile, Congressmen Bennie Thompson and Gregg Harper cruised to victory in primaries in their districts.
While party primaries were taking place in all four of Mississippi’s U.S. House districts, yesterday’s marquee matchup was in south Mississippi, where Palazzo, Taylor and three others sought the Republican nomination.
Palazzo stopped short of claiming an outright victory but said he thought his message of continued opposition to President Barack Obama and the Democratic Party resonated with voters.
“It appears that they want me to go up there and fight for them for another two years,” Palazzo said late yesterday.
Taylor, though, said that there were reports of “significant irregularities” in Harrison County, where Taylor won 60 percent of the vote. He said he wouldn’t concede until those reports were sorted out.
“Because so many people worked so hard, I think I ought to at least take the time to pursue this and see if it puts me on the path for the runoff,” Taylor said Tuesday.
The Sun Herald reported that Harrison County GOP election officials delivered the wrong boxes to 13 precincts, which means an undetermined number of ballots will have to be counted by hand.
Affidavit ballots, including those cast by people who didn’t have photo identification, must be sorted out before the vote becomes final.
Three other candidates in the race made a runoff possible. Tom Carter, a 48-year-old defense contractor from Carriere, ran a distant third. Farther behind were 73-year-old Ron Vincent of Hattiesburg, who lost the 2012 Republican primary to Palazzo; and 24-year-old Tavish Kelly of Picayune.
While Taylor easily won Palazzo’s home county of Harrison and his own home in Hancock County, Palazzo won by wide margins in most inland counties. Taylor said he thought Palazzo’s financial advantage — he raised $678,000 to Taylor’s $251,000 — showed in those regions.
“Some of the places that we thought we had turned around from four years ago, apparently we didn’t,” Taylor said.
Palazzo pointedly questioned the sincerity of the 60-year-old Taylor’s conversion to the GOP. Taylor hammered Palazzo over his 2012 vote to approve flood insurance changes, under which the Federal Emergency Management Agency proposed rate increases. Palazzo counted his March vote to water down changes as his top achievement in the last two years.
In the 4th District’s Democratic primary, Matt Moore of Biloxi, the 2012 Democratic nominee, beat Trish Causey of Ocean Springs. Moore and the Republican winner will face independent candidates Cindy Burleson and Ed Reich, Libertarian Joey Robinson and Reform Party member Eli “Sarge” Jackson in the Nov. 4 general election.
In the 3rd District, which crosses all or parts of 24 counties stretching from Starkville southwest to Natchez, Harper defeated 68-year-old Quitman resident Hardy Caraway in the Republican primary. On the Democratic side, teacher Jim Liljeberg of Bay Springs was eliminated from the race against Douglas MacArthur “Doug” Magee, a Mendenhall lawyer, and Dennis Quinn, a Magnolia resident. Independent Roger Gerrard and Reform Party candidate Barbara Dale Washer will meet Harper and the Democratic nominee in the general election.
Longtime incumbent Thompson defeated Damien Fairconetue of Clinton in the Democratic primary in the 2nd District, which includes the Mississippi Delta, parts of Jackson and southwest Mississippi. Thompson will face independent Troy Ray and the Reform Party’s Shelley Shoemake on Nov. 4.
Two-term Republican incumbent Alan Nunnelee faced no primary challenge in north Mississippi’s 1st Congressional District. He will face Ron Dickey of Horn Lake, Libertarian Danny Bedwell of Columbus and the Reform Party’s Lajena Walley in the general election.