Forced into a Republican runoff election after a bitter primary campaign, Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran now has no choice but to debate state Sen. Chris McDaniel if he wants a shot at a seventh term in Congress, says Jenny Beth Martin of the Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund.
"We are going to send invitations to the candidates to actually have that vigorous debate," Martin told Newsmax in an exclusive interview Wednesday. "There has not been a debate at all in this election cycle in Mississippi."
Martin accepted the challenge contained in a statement late Tuesday by Rob Collins, executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, among the many establishment groups that backed Cochran during the campaign.
"Should Mississippi go to a runoff, we will expect a vigorous debate about the future of our country over the next three weeks and we will continue to fully support Thad Cochran," the Collins statement said. "We look forward to him emerging victorious in the runoff."
Martin, the super-PAC's chairman, retorted to Newsmax on Wednesday: "We completely agree with that. For once we see something that we can agree with the NSRC on."
Cochran, 76, refused to debate McDaniel, 41, during the primary campaign. A lawyer and former radio talk-show host, McDaniel has been in the state Senate since 2008.
A Cochran campaign staffer did not respond to an email query from Newsmax about the senator possibly debating McDaniel.
With 99 percent of the vote counted on Wednesday, McDaniel had 155,040 votes, or 49.5 percent, to Cochran's 153,654, or 49 percent. A little-known third candidate, real estate agent Thomas Carey, won 4,789 votes, or 1.5 percent.
That sliver of support prevented either highly financed rival from reaching the needed 50 percent majority. The runoff is set for June 24.
The winner faces Democrat Travis Childers and the Reform Party's Shawn O'Hara in the Nov. 4 general election.
The last time Mississippi chose a Democratic senator was in 1982, Fox Business reports
"We had a great day yesterday, and it is one more step toward making November Mississippi's moment when we take back the U.S. Senate," Cochran said Wednesday.
McDaniel said his first-place finish was evidence of a "groundswell of energy behind his campaign to bring a true conservative agenda to Washington."
Carey, 67, a born-again Christian, told Newsmax that God led him into the race and that he had hoped to win at least 5 percent of the vote.
"I didn't want to be a spoiler, but I think that maybe the Lord got me in this race to have this so that citizens of the state of Mississippi could step back and take another look at these two candidates," he said.
Carey, who said he would not publicly endorse either candidate, referred to the brutal primary race
that was plagued by charges that Cochran was out to touch with Mississippi voters, too soft on the Obama administration — even too old to be on Capitol Hill.
The battle grew even more intense after four McDaniel supporters were arrested and charged in an alleged plot to illegally photograph Cochran's wife, who has aggressive dementia and lives in a nursing home. She has been bedridden for years.
In addition, many outside groups — the Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund among them — poured as much as $8 million into the race on both sides.
But on Wednesday, the specter of yet another acrimonious run immediately polarized donors and supporters.
On the Cochran side, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce supported the incumbent, but did not say how much it would spend. The chamber paid $500,000 for television ads during the primary campaign.
American Crossroads, the super-PAC co-founded by Republican strategist Karl Rove, told Newsmax, however, that it was passing on the runoff.
"With the chamber, the NRSC and a local super-PAC already backing Cochran, this is not our fight," said Paul Lindsay, a Crossroads spokesman.
The organization donated about $120,000 last month to Mississippi Conservatives, a group that waged a major television campaign favoring Cochran.
"We have to make this about what it is really about: Mississippi's interests versus the outside groups who have hijacked the tea party and have no interest in Mississippi,'' Henry Barbour, head of Mississippi Conservatives and nephew of former Gov. Haley Barbour, told The Clarion-Ledger
Meanwhile, the Club for Growth called for Cochran to quit the race immediately.
"Sen. Cochran has served honorably, but the rationale for his candidacy ended yesterday," said Chris Chocola, the group's president. "He said he didn't want to run again, but everyone asked him to.
"Well, a plurality of Mississippi Republican voters just proved that they don't want him to."
FreedomWorks, which also backed McDaniel, said it would focus on opposing Democrats in November rather than on the runoff.
As for the Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund, it is full steam ahead.
"We were all in for the primary election, and we are looking forward to being all in for the runoff election," Martin told Newsmax. "It's vital that we help push Chris McDaniel over the line of victory three weeks from now.
"Chris McDaniel got the most votes of anyone — and the majority of the voters in Mississippi voted for change and against the 42-year incumbent."
Martin said she is not worried that Democrats could win the seat in November — a fear of many establishment Republicans — if McDaniel wins the runoff.
"I have been on the ground in Mississippi for the last two weeks," she said. "The voters in Mississippi are going to get behind Chris McDaniel and make sure he also wins the election in November.
"He is standing for personal freedom, economic freedom, and a debt-free future. The citizens in Mississippi understand that each of us individually owe $58,000 as our portion of the national debt.
"It's time to solve that problem," Martin added. "Chris McDaniel is going to work to solve that problem."
Further, she says, McDaniel can unite the party to take on the other challengers in November.
"The Cochran voters want the same thing that we want. They want what's best for Mississippi, and they want what's best for the country.
"That would be to get behind Chris McDaniel — if he is the nominee, when he becomes the nominee — and make sure he becomes the next senator from Mississippi," Martin told Newsmax. "The voters in Mississippi will do that."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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