With opponent mired in controversy, Sen. Thad Cochran forges ahead

Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., was narrowly defeated Tuesday in the first round of 2014 primary voting, throwing his race against a tea party Republican challenger into a runoff; and many believe he will struggle to claim victory in the runoff, which could be driven by the sorts of deeply conservative, high-intensity voters who favor his opponent.

But that doesn't mean he's ready to throw in the towel after more than 40 years on Capitol Hill.

"We'll compete," said Cochran during an appearance at a fast food restaurant on Wednesday, according to the Hattiesburg American. "We're just getting around and meeting the voters and asking for their support in this election."

Showdown in Mississippi

During a public event on Thursday, when Cochran was told that the Club for Growth, a conservative organization that supported his primary opponent, was calling for him to drop out, he laughed off the suggestion.

"Whoa," Cochran said, according to the Washington Post. "That's pretty dramatic. They can relax about the dropping out. I have no intention of dropping out."

During his remarks on Thursday, the senator held fast to the script that he'd used throughout the race, emphasizing his deep connection to the state and his seniority in Washington that could help bring federal money to Mississippi.

Cochran also told the Post he would court independents and Democratic voters as he looks toward his runoff. Any Mississippi voter can cast a ballot in a runoff, regardless of party affiliation, provided they didn't vote in the Democratic primary.

The senator was greeted warmly by a number of black voters during his event on Thursday, and he emphasized his support for expanding voting rights -- a sensitive issue among minority voters in recent years as GOP-led state legislatures have imposed voting restrictions in many states around the country.

But as Cochran struggles to expand the electorate in time for the runoff, he may be aided in his quest for another term by the controversies swirling around the primary campaign of his opponent, state Sen. Chris McDaniel.

Scandal stirs bitter primary fight in Mississippi

First came the arrest of a conservative blogger last month for allegedly trespassing in the nursing home where Cochran's wife lives to take a picture of the ailing spouse at her bedside. McDaniel's campaign disavowed any affiliation with the blogger, but Cochran has linked the incident with his opponent in paid advertisements.

And on the heels of that bizarre episode came the revelation that three McDaniel supporters - a local tea party official and two people with McDaniel's campaign - were locked in a courthouse where ballots were being held past midnight on election eve, raising the possibility of election tampering.

The trio said they were allowed into the courthouse by law enforcement before they were accidentally locked inside. They eventually called law enforcement to allow them out of the building, but Othor Cain, a spokesman with the Hinds County Sheriff's Department, told the Jackson Clarion-Ledger on Wednesday that their stories didn't quite add up.

"There are conflicting stories from the three of them, which began to raise the red flag, and we're trying to get to the bottom of it," said Cain. "No official charges have been filed at this point, but we don't know where the investigation will lead us."

McDaniel's campaign has downplayed any talk of foul play, chalking up the incident to an honest mistake, but Cochran's campaign was grateful for the ammunition.

Jordan Russell, the senator's spokesman, told National Review that the incidents reflect a campaign that's "full of criminals" who "cannot keep themselves out of trouble with the law."

"This is a campaign that is out of control," he said. "We've had two separate criminal investigations into one campaign. Is this the kind of person that we want representing our party?"

Cochran himself alluded to the controversies on Thursday, urging voters not to "reward that behavior."

McDaniel's campaign has accused Cochran of hyping distractions to prevent primary voters from scrutinizing his record.

"It's unfortunate that after being rebuked by the people of Mississippi Tuesday, Senator Cochran and his spokesman would choose to divide our party with such absurdly irrational attacks," McDaniel spokesman Noel Fritsch told National Review. "Thad Cochran should come back to Mississippi to debate Chris McDaniel on the issues Mississippians care about."

In an email to supporters on Friday, McDaniel said Cochran's "only shot at stopping us now is to completely trash me with vicious, negative personal ads."

The establish is "desperate to save my opponent, because his record has gotten him in real trouble with the people of Mississippi," McDaniel wrote. "He has voted for bailouts, tax increases, and personal pay raises. He's voted to fund Obamacare, twice."

He also solicited more money from supporters, warning that his campaign coffers are nearly dry.

The primary runoff is scheduled for June 24, leaving both campaigns less than three precious weeks to drive the narrative and corral supporters before voters render a verdict.