JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — From Mississippi to the U.S. Capitol, mainstream Republicans expressed relief Wednesday at Sen. Thad Cochran's comeback primary victory over tea party challenger Chris McDaniel, highlighting anew the fissures between traditional GOP powers and challengers determined to pull the party further rightward.
McDaniel, meanwhile, complained that a number of Democrats —most of whom are black in Mississippi— apparently cast ballots in the GOP runoff and boosted Cochran's numbers. McDaniel refused to concede the race and said he would probe "irregularities" in Tuesday's voting.
"We must be absolutely certain that our Republican primary was won by Republican voters," McDaniel said. "In the coming days, our team will look into the irregularities to determine whether a challenge is warranted."
His insistence that Democrats voting in his party's primary was a bad thing made some mainstream Republicans cringe— and express relief that Cochran, a six-term senator and former Appropriations Committee chairman, is now the heavy favorite to win re-election over Democrat Travis Childers this fall.
"I'm for more people voting, not less people voting," Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul told reporters in the Capitol in Washington.
Cochran's victory, they said, allows the GOP to continue its push to win a Senate majority in November without worrying whether McDaniel, a 41-year-old state senator, will join Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in a conservative faction that often frustrates operations of the Senate.
Also, McDaniel might have put the seat in jeopardy in November, said Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran.
"I believe that either Sen. Cochran or Sen. McDaniel would have won in November, but there's a widespread belief that Sen. Cochran's path is much clearer," said Moran, chairman of the Senate GOP's campaign committee.
"It's a good day for Republicans and good news for anyone who wants a Republican majority that is similar in mindset to the current Republican minority," said GOP strategist Tom Ingram, a top adviser to Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander.
Alexander's August primary is the next face-off between a sitting Republican senator and a challenger from the right.
Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee noted that Cochran's victory came the same day that Oklahoma Rep. James Lankford won the GOP Senate nomination over a tea party candidate in the race to succeed retiring Sen. Tom Coburn.
"I know there had been some concern about some of the stereotypes that could be generated with certain nominees," Corker said. "I don't know if any of that is valid or invalid." Referring to Cochran and Lankford, he said, "What I do know is that with those two, that certainly will not be an issue."
Henry Barbour, who ran a pro-Cochran Super PAC, said voters rewarded Cochran for showing that "you still have to govern" even as you "defend your principles."
Cochran turned a 1,400-vote deficit to McDaniel in the primary's first round into an almost 6,800-vote runoff victory in no small part by appealing to voters who hadn't already voted in the Democratic Primary on June 3 — a legal strategy given that Mississippi voters don't register by party.
As for criticism of his time in Congress, Cochran embraced McDaniel's reproach of him as a big spender by promising to "do more for Mississippi." He hammered that message even as Moran's committee paid for automated calls to Republican voters urging them to re-elect Cochran so the GOP could "stop out-of-control spending."
Cochran's campaign also reached out to black community leaders, taking advantage of their unhappiness over McDaniel's anti-government rhetoric and scathing criticism of President Barack Obama, who got support from just 1 of 10 white Mississippi voters in 2012.
Statewide turnout increased by almost 70,000 votes over the June 3 primary. Turnout in majority black counties grew by 43 percent, while in counties where blacks are less than a majority, it grew 17 percent.
McDaniel and his campaign spokesman did not return messages Wednesday about whether he would appeal the results. State law says an appeal would be made to the state Republican Party. A separate state law appears not to allow McDaniel the option of waging a write-in candidacy in November.
In Washington, Republicans dismissed McDaniel's criticism of Cochran's strategy and found themselves hoping openly for more black votes in the future, though the party has insisted in Mississippi and elsewhere on voter ID laws that some African-Americans criticize as modern poll taxes.
The lone Democrat in Mississippi's congressional delegation, meanwhile, said McDaniel should blame himself if he's upset about black voters affecting a GOP primary.
"When you talk about government not having an obligation to its citizens and you use code words like 'they have lived off the government too long,'" said Rep. Bennie Thompson, "to the average black Mississippian, those code words bring up too much of the past.
And I just think that McDaniel did as much for the Cochran turnout in the black community as the Cochran people did," said Thompson, who is black.
Barrow reported from Atlanta. Associated Press writers David Espo, Donna Cassata, Andrew Taylor and Charles Babington and polling director Jennifer Agiesta contributed from Washington.