WASHINGTON — Six-term Republican Sen. Thad Cochran and tea party-backed challenger Chris McDaniel dueled at close quarters in Mississippi's primary election Tuesday, a struggle in a party divided along ideological lines.
On the busiest night of the primary season, former South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds won the Republican nomination for the Senate — and instantly became the favorite to pick up a seat for the GOP in its drive to capture a majority this fall.
There were Senate primaries in seven states, including Iowa, where Republican state Sen. Joni Ernst took an early lead over her rivals for the right to oppose Rep. Bruce Braley in the fall for a seat long in Democratic hands.
Five states picked nominees for governor, including California, where Democrat Jerry Brown sought renomination to a fourth term.
The marquee contest of the night was in Mississippi, where Cochran, 76, and the 41-year-old McDaniel remained locked in a close race as the vote count mounted. Returns from 78 percent of the state's precincts showed McDaniel edging ahead in a three-way race, but a June 24 runoff was possible.
The race became a heated contest between a pillar of the GOP establishment who has helped funnel millions of dollars to his state and a younger state lawmaker who drew backing from tea party groups and former Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin.
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.
State law required the primary leader to gain at least 50 percent of the vote to win the nomination outright. The presence of a third Republican on the ballot, Thomas Carey, raised the possibility that a runoff would be needed.