WASHINGTON — The tea party is calling it a big victory, now that its candidate appears to have forced a runoff with a six-term GOP senator in Mississippi.
The morning after the election, there was still just a half-point gap between them – in the most critical battle between conservatives and establishment Republicans Tuesday.
With more than 99 percent of the vote counted, conservative state Sen. Chris McDaniel was ahead of establishment GOP incumbent, 76-year-old Sen. Thad Cochran, by less than one percentage point.
McDaniel had 49.6 percent of the vote to Cochran’s 48.9 percent.
If no candidate reaches 50 percent of the vote there will be a runoff on June 24.
The busy primary night included elections in Alabama, New Jersey, Montana, New Mexico, South Dakota, Mississippi, California and Iowa.
The biggest prize for the tea party Tuesday is in Mississippi, where it has a real shot at unseating an Cochran.
Republican megastar Sarah Palin campaigned for McDaniel in his bid to topple Cochran, and it showed in the polls, with the challenger coming within striking distance before Tuesday.
Numbers released Friday from Harper Polling showed Cochran leading McDaniel by just 5 points. The challenger kept the momentum going in Tuesday’s actual voting, finally pulling ahead.
Cochran is the second-longest serving Republican in the U.S. Senate.
“We can’t have six more years of the status quo,” said McDaniel, explaining before primary night why he was trying to dethrone his fellow Republican. “I am not going to Washington, D.C., to be a member of the cocktail circuit or to make backroom deals. I’m going up there to fight and defend the Constitution.”
The race had been marked by a bizarre scandal in which a McDaniel supporter allegedly entered a nursing home to photograph Cochran’s wife, who suffers from dementia, and used the image in a video to attack the incumbent.
However, the incident apparently didn’t hurt the challenger. In fact, Harper Polling believed Cochran’s attempt to capitalize on the incident energized McDaniel’s base.
Even before the election, the tea party already had a winner in the Hawkeye State. So did the establishment GOP.
She’s the same person.
In a race against four other candidates, state Sen. Joni Ernst won the party nomination with a massive margin.
After all, it would be hard not to endorse Ernst after the most memorable political campaign ad, perhaps ever, in which she touted her hog castrating skills as a sure sign she will know how to cut the pork in Washington.
With a near-40-point lead over her nearest rival, Ernst may be a rising star in the GOP.
Palin, Mitt Romney and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., all campaigned with the lieutenant colonel in the Iowa National Guard.
Ernst will face Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley, who had only token opposition in his primary.
The winner in November's general election will replace longtime Sen. Tom Harkin, a Democrat who is retiring at the end of the year.
Another tea-party hopeful who took on a GOP establishment candidate – but lost – was in the race for an open congressional seat in New Jersey.
Conservative Steve Lonegan had endorsements from Palin, former Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, and mogul Steve Forbes.
After trailing by double-digits, polls showed Lonegan in a dead-heat with GOP establishment candidate Tom MacArthur.
But in the actual voting, McArthur easily won the nomination with 59.7 percent of the vote to Lonegan's 40.3 percent.
Democrats apparently hoped Lonegan would win, thinking it would help their certain nominee, Burlington County Freeholder Aimee Belgard, in the race to replace outgoing GOP congressman Jon Runyan.
Republicans saw a chance to pick up a Senate seat in Montana after long-serving Democrat Sen. Max Baucus resigned to become U.S. ambassador to China.
Democrat Sen. John Walsh was appointed to the seat in February and won his party's nomination against two primary challengers, rancher Dirk Adams and former Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger.
His opponent will be Republican Rep. Steve Daines, who crushed two primary opponents by taking 85 percent of the vote.
Daines is not easily pegged as conservative or establishment GOP.
He is supported by the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Last fall, Daines voted with conservatives as Democrats let the government shut down, but then he voted to end the shutdown.
“The consistent theme that I heard all over the state, whether in eastern Montana or western Montana, is the intrusive overreach of the federal government into our lives in Montana,” Daines has said.
Tea party-backed state Rep. Tim Donnelly conceded to former Bush administration treasury official Neel Kashkari, who will be the GOP candidate to face Democratic incumbent Gov. Jerry Brown in the fall.
In California's first-ever "open" ballot, where voters from any party can cast ballots for any candidate, Kashkari garnered 18 percent to Donnelly's 15 percent.
Brown finished with 55 percent after barely bothering to campaign, and is going for an unprecedented fourth term in his second time around as the state's chief executive.
A glimmer of hope for the GOP in the Golden State was evidenced by a surprising result in the battle for Beverly Hills, as a Republican came out on top of a crowded field in one of the most liberal districts in the nation.
D.C.-fixture Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., spent a mind-boggling 40 years representing some of the most expensive real estate in the world in California's 33rd Congressional District that includes Beverly Hills, Hollywood, Bel Air, Brentwood and Pacific Palisades.
But Republican Elan Carr was the top vote-getter to replace him, among a field of 18 candidates.
Carr got 21.5 percent of the vote and will face Democratic state Sen. Ted Lieu, who received 19 percent, in the November election.
Carr may have been helped by both strong ties to Israel and a large field of Democrats splitting the vote among themselves.
A favorite with Hollywood progressives, celebrity self-help guru Marianne Williamson finished fourth with 12.9 percent, despite the support of fellow celebrity Kim Kardashian and superstar singer Katy Perry.
In addition to the new-age spiritual healer, a public radio host, a sports executive and a television producer were all in the running.
California is also where Sandra Fluke is trying to make a name for herself, other than as the object of Rush Limbaugh's ire.
She now lives in West Hollywood and will face a fellow Democrat in a runoff for a seat in the state Senate.
Listed on the ballot as a "social justice" attorney, Fluke became a brief sensation in liberal circles as a law student after the radio host joked she was a "slut" for testifying before Congress that the government should pay for inexpensive and widely available birth control as part of Obamacare.
Limbaugh felt obliged to apologize and Fluke soon disappeared from the media's radar.
She faced six opponents in another pricey district that includes Santa Monica, as well as Beverly Hills, Brentwood and Pacific Palisades.
Fluke was supported by Gloria Steinem and California NOW.
Finally, California also featured a bid for state attorney general by lawyer Orly Taitz, who made a name for herself questioning the legitimacy of President Obama's birth certificate.
She finished second-to-last in a field of seven candidates, as Democratic incumbent Kamala Harris won with 53 percent of the vote.
Republican Gov. Robert Bentley, who was running for a second term, won the Republican gubernatorial primary in Alabama, with a 10-to-1 victory over his opponents.
Businessman Rick Weiland was unopposed in the Democratic primary to replace retiring Sen. Tim Johnson.
Former Gov. Mike Rounds won the GOP nomination for Senate.
Democrat Gary King won a five-way gubernatorial contest to challenge popular Republican Gov. Susana Martinez.
In the Senate race, GOP businessman Allen Weh won with 63.4 percent of the vote and will face popular Democratic U.S. Sen. Tom Udall in November.