In the end, Mississippi’s biggest stars came out for Thad Cochran. Former NFL quarterback Brett Favre cut an ad about schools, and Trent Lott, a popular former Senator who now lobbies for the state’s defense contractors, testified about Senator Cochran’s ability to bring home the federal bacon.
And when the votes were counted in the June 24 Republican runoff, Cochran squeaked by with just a few thousand votes more than challenger Chris McDaniel, a Tea Party–backed state senator and former talk-radio host. Cochran won thanks in part to an unknown number of Democrats, many of them African American, who crossed over to support the six-term GOP appropriator.
The outcome was a letdown for the right-wing insurgents who had made the Magnolia State one of the premier battlegrounds of the 2014 cycle. Deep-pocketed moderates like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the fiercely anti-Washington Club for Growth fought a proxy war in the state, spending millions to tilt the vote.
That fight turned nasty, with lawsuits, criminal investigations and allegations of dirty tricks, including claims that a McDaniel supporter illegally videotaped Cochran’s ailing wife in a nursing home. One radio ad by an outside group selectively quoted Cochran to suggest he’d admitted to bestiality.
Coming a week after the Tea Party’s unexpected defeat of House majority leader Eric Cantor, the campaign was another clash between an emblem of the Establishment and a grassroots upstart, between a conductor on the gravy train and an antigovernment purist. This time, the moderates held.
“There is something a bit unusual about a Republican primary that’s decided by liberal Democrats,” McDaniel said on election night, as if to imply that he may challenge the result. But there are few legal routes open to him, and Cochran is expected to easily defeat his Democratic opponent in November.
Some called Cochran’s win the beginning of the end of the Tea Party. Maybe so, but the rebels will retain plenty of clout inside the GOP and beyond it for years.
This appears in the July 07, 2014 issue of TIME.