WASHINGTON — A longtime Republican senator narrowly led a challenger backed by the small-government tea party movement Tuesday in a Mississippi primary runoff that exposed deep divisions in the party.
The runoff in Mississippi — one of seven states to have votes on Tuesday — was the first big test for the party establishment since it was jolted two weeks ago by the defeat of the No. 2 Republican in the House of Representatives, Eric Cantor, by a little-known college professor loosely associated with the tea party.
A victory in Mississippi by state legislator Chris McDaniel over incumbent Thad Cochran, would add to the tea party’s momentum after a series of defeats in earlier Senate primaries.
McDaniel had a slight edge in the original June 3 primary, but was short of the 50 per cent needed to avoid a runoff.
But with 95 per cent of precincts reporting, Cochran led with 50.6 per cent to McDaniel’s 49.4 per cent.
The vote could reverberate beyond Mississippi.
A loss by Cochran, following Cantor’s defeat, would further demonstrate how even solidly conservative lawmakers risk the wrath of Republican primary voters if they compromise on core Republican issues like spending and immigration.
That could push Republicans further to the right, add to the partisan gridlock during Barack Obama’s final two years as president and increase the risk of a government shutdown or default.
Tuesday’s vote is unlikely to affect Republican efforts to win control of the Senate from Democrats.
Mississippi is strongly Republican and either candidate would be favoured in the November general election.
Cochran, who has spent almost half his 76 years in the Senate, has highlighted his decades on the influential Appropriations Committee and his work directing billions in federal dollars to his home state, one of the poorest in the U.S. McDaniel, 41, has the backing of former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin and the tea party movement, which wants to make deep spending cuts and keep taxes to a minimum.
McDaniel declared as he voted Tuesday, “We are here, we’re going to fight for our belief system no matter what, and we’re going to reclaim Washington, D.C., one race at a time.”
Cochran, meanwhile, reached out to traditionally Democratic voters — blacks and union members. Voters who cast ballots in the June 3 Democratic primary were barred from participating.
The Cochran appeal to non-Republicans infuriated McDaniel and prompted tea partiers — as well the NAACP civil rights group and the Justice Department — to keep tabs on the voting in Mississippi. State officials also were observing the voting.
In another Republican Senate primary that received less national attention than Mississippi’s, an Oklahoma congressman, James Lankford, defeated a tea party-backed state lawmaker in a contest for a seat being vacated by a retiring Republican senator. In the solidly Republican state, Lankford is all but assured of becoming the next senator.
Democrats also had a veteran lawmaker vulnerable to a challenge from within his party Tuesday. Congressman Charles Rangel, 84, who has represented Harlem and other parts of New York City for more than 40 years, held a slight lead over Adriano Espaillat, a state lawmaker bidding to become the first Dominican-born member of Congress.
Rangel, one of the most recognizable members of the Congressional Black Caucus, drew criticism last month when he dismissed Espaillat as a candidate whose only accomplishment was to be a Dominican in a majority Latino district.
Two years ago, Rangel prevailed over Espaillat in the primary by fewer than 1,100 votes.
In Colorado, a former congressman Bob Beauprez won the crowded Republican gubernatorial primary that included another former congressman,Tom Tancredo, a staunch immigration opponent. That was welcome news to national Republicans who feared that Tancredo could have hurt Republican prospects in November’s Senate and House races in a state with a large Hispanic voting bloc. The winner will face Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper.