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.
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, a sliver of support but enough to prevent either of the two better-funded rivals from reaching the needed majority.
Ahead lie three weeks of uncertainty — a political vacuum that both sides will rush to fill while election officials sort through little-used rules and requirements.
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 highest for the candidates, then for the future of the tea party, which failed earlier in the year to topple incumbents or other establishment favorites in Texas, Kentucky, Georgia and North Carolina.
Already, the jockeying was underway in the closest race of the primary season.
The Club For Growth, a conservative group that aired television ads for McDaniel, 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. "We look forward to him emerging victorious in the runoff."
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which spent $500,000 on television ads for Cochran, said it would help his cause during a runoff, but did not immediately specify how much it would spend.
But 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. The organization donated about $120,000 last month to Mississippi Conservatives, a group that waged a major televised ad campaign to boost Cochran.
Regardless of the outcome, it was clear that feelings 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."
But Clarke Reed, a Cochran supporter and former state party chairman, criticized the spending by Club For Growth and other 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."
David Espo reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Donna Cassata and Philip Elliott in Washington and Jeff Amy in Flowood, Miss., contributed to this report.