ACROSS MISSISSIPPI — Voters already weary of the ugliest campaign in a generation are bracing for another three weeks of tear-down-your-opponent politicking.
Challenger Chris McDaniel and Sen. Thad Cochran head toward a runoff in the tea party’s strongest attempt this year to unseat a powerful longtime lawmaker. Automated phone calls have already started, and independent groups are pledging significant financial support for advertising.
McDaniel held a narrow lead over Cochran after Tuesday’s primary as thousands of mail-in and provisional ballots remained to be counted. With a low-budget third candidate in the race, no one grabbed the majority needed to avoid the June 24 runoff.
McDaniel’s campaign 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 Wednesday 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.
Emotions were running high in a state where gentility is a value in politics — if not a practice.
Dannie Reed, a former member of the state Legislature and a McDaniel supporter, said the state Republican establishment has shunned people like him and Cochran’s challenger.
“The tea party has been so vilified and labeled,” he said. “Look at all the hypocrisy in the race. … It’s just everywhere around this established Republican institution.”
Clarke Reed, a Cochran supporter and former state party chairman, criticized the spending by out-of-state groups that paid for a steady stream of anti-Cochran TV ads.
“They came in and hijacked the Mississippi tea party people, poured the money down here,” he said. “We never had ads like this down here with half-lies, which is worse than full lies.”
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 wouldn’t 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.
Results from 99 percent of the state’s precincts showed McDaniel with 155,040 votes, or 49.5 percent. Cochran had 153,654, or 49 percent. Carey had 4,789 votes, or 1.5 percent.
The count was slowed by the presence of a few thousand mailed-in ballots as well as provisional ballots cast by voters who lacked identification. They have five days to provide it and validate their votes. Beyond that, officials have until June 13 to complete their canvass of the vote. If they take that long, that would leave only 10 days before the runoff election.
Further complicating the race, the state has no provision for an automatic recount even in a race as close as this one, and either side presumably could go to court.
The stakes were high for the tea party, which failed earlier this year to topple incumbents or other establishment favorites in Texas, Kentucky, Georgia and North Carolina.
With a runoff looming, the jockeying in Mississippi was already underway.
The conservative group Club for Growth urged Cochran to drop out. A second backer of the challenger, FreedomWorks, taunted the party’s campaign committee, saying it should spend its time opposing Democrats rather than the leader in the primary balloting.
Cochran’s allies said they intended to prevail in the runoff. “We will expect a vigorous debate about the future of our country over the next three weeks and we will continue to fully support Thad Cochran,” the National Republican Senatorial Committee said in a statement.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which spent $500,000 on television ads for Cochran, said it would help his cause again but did not immediately specify how much it would spend.
Another group that had been helping the senator headed for the sidelines. “With the Chamber, the NRSC and a local super PAC already backing Cochran, this is not our fight,” said Paul Lindsay, a spokesman for Crossroads.