Fresh off Sen. Thad Cochran's comeback to defeat tea party challenger Chris McDaniel in Mississippi's bitter Republican Senate runoff, the general election matchup between the six-term incumbent and Democratic former Congressman Travis Childers features two pragmatists each trying to wrest a winning coalition out of a jumbled primary.
Cochran will have to chase Republicans who backed his more conservative primary rival, while Childers must pursue members of his party who voted for Cochran in the GOP primary.
Unofficial returns after Tuesday's primary runoff vote showed Cochran with a statewide lead of about 6,400 votes over McDaniel, or 50.9 percent to 49.1 percent, using a substantially higher turnout to erase a 1,400-vote deficit to McDaniel in the initial primary that ended without a majority winner.
It produces a potentially compelling general election matchup in a state that otherwise should be an afterthought in the GOP's national effort to reclaim a Senate majority — a threshold that could return Cochran to his old post as Senate Appropriations chairman where he could deliver on his promise to "do more for Mississippi."
The Nov. 4 ballot also will include Shawn O'Hara of the Reform Party.
In a brief appearance Tuesday night, Cochran praised his supporters for a "great victory" and called his win an endorsement of "more and better jobs for Mississippi."
The 76-year-old senator didn't mention McDaniel, a 41-year-old state senator, but it's obvious Cochran must mend fences with conservatives inspired by McDaniel's critique of the incumbent as the face of a $17 trillion national debt.
Cochran's rebuilding effort starts even as McDaniel refuses to concede, instead raising the specter of a legal challenge that would at least nominally extend this midterm election year's most bitter battle between tea party conservatives and traditional Republican powers.
McDaniel's complaint: unspecified "irregularities" he attributed to "liberal Democrats" supporting Cochran.
National tea party aligned groups that backed McDaniel — outside PACs spent about $12 million on the race — didn't protest the results, but made clear they aren't eager to cozy up to Cochran. At FreedomWorks, director Matt Kibbe called it "disgraceful" that GOP stalwarts like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell "champion a campaign platform of pork-barrel spending and insider deal-making, while recruiting Democrats to show up at the polls."
Besides raising questions about whether Cochran can easily win over McDaniel voters, those sentiments also could make it harder for Cochran and his fellow Republicans to hit Childers with the typical GOP charge that Democrats are spendthrift liberals.
Childers still must navigate the challenge of running in a state where President Barack Obama got less than 40 percent of the vote. And instead of running against McDaniel — a firebrand whom Childers certainly would have framed as too extreme even for Mississippi — Childers must now run against an incumbent who, even if battered, is more popular across the electorate than within his party's conservative core.
Consider Ronny Barrett, a 56-year-old mechanic from Jackson and a black Democrat who voted for Cochran on June 3 and again Tuesday.
"Sen. Cochran has done a lot of things for the black community, and a lot of people in the black community know that," Barrett said at Cochran's victory party. "First time in my life I voted Republican. ... I think I'll vote Republican again."
Because Mississippi voters don't register by party, it's impossible to know exactly how many Democrats or independents voted for Cochran. But turnout increased by almost 70,000 votes over the June 3 turnout, and Cochran improved his vote totals substantially in several key counties, including about 7,000 additional votes in Hinds, the seat of state government; more than 1,000 in Harrison and more than 1,200 in Jackson, both coastal counties.
McDaniel did not say Tuesday night that he would challenge the result, but he was defiant as he addressed his supporters in Hattiesburg.
"We are not prone to surrender, we Mississippians," he declared. "Before this race is over we have to be absolutely certain the Republican primary was won by Republican voters."
One of his top supporters, state Sen. Michael Watson, was asked whether the candidate offered Cochran a concession. "You didn't hear one, did you?" Watson replied.
It's not clear what grounds McDaniel would have to contest Cochran's nomination. Mississippi law allowed anyone who did not voted in the June 3 Democratic primary to cast a Republican runoff ballot. McDaniel and his supporters previously cited a Mississippi law — effectively invalidated by the courts — that requires primary voters to support a party's nominee in November. Mississippi elections officials confirmed before polls opened that the statute is unenforceable.
But that still doesn't settle whether Cochran can win over McDaniel backers like 88-year-old Fonzo Finch or 23-year-old Kari Purvis.
"We need new spirit, new people in Washington," Finch, a World War II veteran, said after voting in Jackson on Tuesday. Purvis, a middle school teacher, said at her Magee polling place, "Thad Cochran's been up there a while. ... I just wanted a change for the better."
Those are exactly the kinds of voters Childers wants.
"Senator Cochran does not have the confidence of his state, let alone his own party," Childers said in a statement Tuesday. "If we are going to change Washington, we will need to change who we send to Washington."