WASHINGTON — Just when the Tea Party showed signs of life, six-term GOP Sen. Thad Cochran found a way to stifle the insurgent conservatives.
Cochran on Tuesday night narrowly defeated rival Chris McDaniel in Mississippi's closely watched Republican runoff by making a last-minute appeal to blacks and Democrats. The veteran senator is now the favorite to win a seventh term in November against Democrat Travis Childers, a former congressman.
"It's a group effort," Cochran told his supporters Tuesday night. "We all have a right to be proud of our state tonight."
The Mississippi Senate race shared top billing on a busy primary night in which 22-term Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., was also fighting for his political life. Rangel was leading and confident of defeating Democratic rival Adriano Espaillat in a rematch of their bitter 2012 race. The Associated Press had not yet declared a winner.
Cochran, a former chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, wooed Mississippi Democrats by pointing to his decades of bringing home federal dollars to help his cash-strapped state. He had help from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which ran a TV ad featuring former NFL quarterback Brett Favre, and from colleagues such as Sen. John McCain, the 2008 GOP presidential nominee.
McDaniel, a state senator and former talk-radio host, portrayed Cochran as not sufficiently conservative and faulted him for increasing the nation's budget deficit from his perch on the Appropriations Committee. He was backed by Tea Party allies such as the Club for Growth and Senate Conservatives Fund, groups that have been eager to defeat GOP incumbents this year.
McDaniel had a small lead after the June 3 primary and was buoyed by the recent showing in Virginia of Dave Brat, a Tea Party acolyte who scored an upset over House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. In his remarks to supporters, McDaniel vowed to "never stop fighting" for his beliefs,
"There is something a bit unusual about a Republican primary that is decided by liberal Democrats," McDaniel posted on Twitter.
Unofficial returns showed Cochran performed better in counties with a strong black population in the Mississippi Delta than he did in the first round of voting. The Tea Party groups had stationed poll watchers throughout the state, worried about Cochran's outreach to Democrats in the GOP contest.
Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks, a group that helped McDaniel, lashed out at GOP leaders, the Chamber of Commerce and the party's Senate campaign committee for championing a "campaign platform of pork-barrel spending and insider deal-making, while recruiting Democrats to show up at the polls."
Cochran "has an impeccable record, not only of supporting policies that boost economic growth and job creation, but of leadership to get things done," said Rob Engstrom, national political director for the Chamber.
Jeri Ausbon, a McDaniel supporter, illustrated the challenge that faced Cochran. She voted in the past for Cochran because "we voted for the party, more than for the person."
Now, Ausbon said, she supported McDaniel because he's more conservative. "We want to get back to states' rights," Ausbon said at a McDaniel rally earlier this week. "We want to get back to what this country is founded on."
Maur McKie, a Cochran supporter, said the senator has done a lot for the state — including his work on agriculture, military bases and infrastructure projects. "He can get things done," McKie said. "I'm at a loss as to why you throw somebody like that aside."
Cochran and Rangel are what's known in congressional parlance as "old bulls" — a nickname given to veteran legislators, often committee chairmen, with deep influence in the House and Senate. Several of their "old bull" counterparts — such as Rep. John Dingell, the longest-serving member of Congress — have chosen to retire at the end of this term.
Rangel had to give up the gavel of the House Ways and Means Committee in 2010 as he was investigated for ethics violations. He argued his years of experience in Washington would be of more benefit to New York's 13th Congressional District than Espaillat's tenure as a state senator in Albany.
The district is now majority Hispanic because of changing demographics in Harlem, Rangel's political base since he was first elected in 1970, and new precincts in the Bronx that were added after redistricting. Rangel was criticized when he dismissed Espaillat as having only his Dominican heritage to run on. Michael Walrond, a Harlem minister who is close to Al Sharpton, was running a distant third.
In other key races, Oklahoma voters chose GOP Rep. James Lankford to be their Senate nominee for the seat of retiring Sen. Tom Coburn and Maryland Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown won the Democratic nomination to be governor.
Republican Curt Clawson won a special election in Florida to succeed Trey Radel, who resigned after he was busted for cocaine possession. Colorado voters tapped former congressman Bob Beauprez as the GOP nominee to face Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper in November.
Contributing: Deborah Barfield Berry in Jackson, Miss.