JACKSON, Miss. - Republicans huddled Thursday over the slow-motion showdown of the Mississippi Senate runoff, with allies of Sen. Thad Cochran aiming to sharpen his message and supporters of tea party-endorsed challenger Chris McDaniel exploiting his opponent's vulnerabilities. Cash, campaign help and advice flowed into a titanic clash of the factions splitting the GOP.
McDaniel, a state senator, led in Tuesday's primary and had momentum from a national patchwork of archconservative organizations looking for their first incumbent scalp of the midterm election year. Cochran, a six-term Senate veteran, was on the defensive amid a frenzy of anti-Washington, anti-establishment fervor.
On Thursday afternoon, Cochran promised a fight throughout the campaign.
Told that the conservative Club for Growth, which spent $2.5 million backing McDaniel before the primary, had called for him to drop out, Cochran laughed. "Whoa," he said after a stop at a Raytheon Co. facility about 50 miles east of Jackson. "They can relax. ... I have no intention of dropping out. I have every intention of winning the election."
Alongside him was Stuart Stevens, a top strategist for Mitt Romney's failed presidential campaign in 2012. Romney hasn't endorsed Cochran, but Stevens' presence was another reminder that Cochran has run as an establishment Republican, backed by the national party's Senate campaign committee and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, among others.
McDaniel and his supporters maintain that those associations are Cochran's greatest liability and make it impossible for him to win over conservatives who are angry about the nation's direction.
"Sen. Cochran has had five decades in Washington and it's clear that six more years of the same won't have any impact on the direction of our country," Club for Growth President Chris Chocola said in calling for Cochran to drop out of the June 24 runoff.
Chocola's group led the spending among third-party organizations whose combined effort topped $8.4 million, a staggering sum for a state with 3 million residents and relatively inexpensive television advertising rates.
Groups on both sides have promised they'll stay engaged in coming weeks, though McDaniel's supporters have thus far seemed more eager.
"The message to them is: 1,300 votes," FreedomWorks President Matt Kibbe said in an interview in his Washington office, referring to Tuesday's margin. "Insurgents win on the ground."
FreedomWorks spent about $350,000 in the primary, and Kibbe promised more. The group's biggest efforts will be on voter turnout. FreedomWorks has ordered 20,000 more yard signs and another 40,000 pro-McDaniel fliers to leave at voters' doors. The group is planning to keep its volunteers and organizers in the state for the runoff. And an eight-city bus tour is scheduled for next weekend. McDaniel lost six of the nine counties that hold those cities; Hattiesburg straddles two counties.
Kibbe said the message will stay focused on Cochran's role in Washington.
"The people that we're fighting with are self-anointed Republican strategists whose day jobs is lobbying," he said.
It was a not-so-subtle jab at Haley Barbour, the former national GOP chairman and two-term Mississippi governor who, along with several of his family members, is backing Cochran. After leaving the governor's office in 2012, Barbour returned to the Washington-based lobbying shop he founded.
Barbour has repeatedly warned Republicans that nominating doctrinaire conservatives leads to general election losses in winnable races, such as the GOP's Senate losses in Nevada and Delaware in 2010, followed by Indiana and Missouri in 2012. For the most part, Republicans have steered clear of tea party aligned candidates this year, intensifying the movement's focus on McDaniel.
Cochran, who once said he didn't "know a lot about" the tea party, said he would reach out to all voters, including African-Americans and Democrats.
"Voting rights has been an issue of great importance in Mississippi," he said, adding, "I think democracy works better when all people participate."
Out of Mississippi's 1.9 million registered voters, only the 85,000 who cast Democratic primary ballots Tuesday are ineligible to vote in the GOP runoff.
The senator's supporters, meanwhile, continue to paint the McDaniel team as extreme, using as their latest argument that one of McDaniel's prominent backers and two companions went to a county courthouse in Jackson long after officials had finished counting ballots for the night. Janis Lane, a Central Mississippi Tea Party leader, said she went only to observe ballots being counted, but she and her companions ended up locked inside the Hinds County Courthouse after entering around 2 a.m.
The Hinds County Sheriff's Office said late Thursday afternoon that it had completed an investigation of the incident and found no criminal wrongdoing.
The McDaniel campaign already has had to distance itself from supporters who have been indicted on charges that they illegally took photographs of Cochran's wife, Rose Cochran, who has dementia and has lived for many years in a Mississippi nursing home.