WASHINGTON - A tea party challenger and a veteran Republican senator were heading toward a possible runoff in a Mississippi primary that represents the ultraconservative movement's last best chance to topple an incumbent and prove it remains relevant years after bursting on the political scene.
Establishment-backed Republican candidates prevailed in other key primary races around the country Tuesday, as the party leadership continued its mostly successful effort to put mainstream candidates on the ballot in the November general elections.
Hoping to pick up six seats need to capture the Senate majority, the Republican Party leadership is concerned that general election voters will be put off by the most extreme of the tea partiers.
The party's big majority in the House of Representatives is not in danger. If it takes control of both houses of Congress it would likely kill any chance Obama has of moving his legislative agenda in the final two years of his term.
In the battle in deep-South Mississippi, unofficial returns from 99 per cent of the state's precincts showed tea party-backed Chris McDaniel with slightly less than 50 per cent of the vote in a three-way race. Six-term incumbent Sen. Thad Cochran had slightly under 49 per cent. It takes a majority by one candidate to avoid a runoff.
While a McDaniel win would provide a boost to tea party conservatives, it's not likely to impact the battle for control of the Senate. The winner of the Democratic nomination, Former Rep. Travis Childers, is unlikely to defeat either McDaniel or Cochran in a staunchly conservative state that last elected a Democratic senator in 1982.
The national stakes were higher in three other states — Iowa, Montana and South Dakota — where the Republican hope to pick up seats now held by Democrats. And in those states, candidates backed by the Republican Party establishment easily won their nomination battles.
The anti-tax, small-government tea party rose to prominence after the 2008 election of President Barack Obama, and the movement helped the Republicans capture the House two years later.
But after the Republicans failed to take back the Senate in 2012, some of the tea party's lustre has faded. Tea party-backed challengers this year failed to topple high-profile Republicans in Senate primaries in Texas, Georgia, North Carolina and Kentucky.
The contest between Cochran, 76, and McDaniel, 41, was a costly and heated race between a pillar of the Republican establishment who has helped funnel millions of dollars to his state and cast himself as a reliable opponent of Obama and a younger state lawmaker who criticized the incumbent for being too willing to go along with Democrats in Washington.
The campaign took a turn toward the sensational when four men, all McDaniel supporters, were arrested and charged with surreptitiously taking photographs of the senator's 72-year-old wife, who suffers from dementia and has long lived in a nursing home. McDaniel said he knew nothing about it, but Cochran supporters suspected dirty politics.
Eight states in all held primaries Tuesday. Five states picked candidates for governor on Tuesday, including California, where Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown cruised to re-nomination to a fourth term.
Associated Press writers David Espo in Washington, Emily Wagster Pettus in Jackson, Mississippi, and Tom Beaumont in Iowa contributed to this report.
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