McDaniel, a state senator, has refused to concede to Cochran as he mulls avenues for challenging the results of Tuesday's election.
But other than proving voter fraud in court or through a party-sponsored canvass or recount -- both unlikely propositions, Mississippi law provides McDaniel with no means to continue his Senate campaign: write-in candidacies appear to be illegal and the filing deadline to run as an independent was March 1.
Mississippi Republicans expect the post-primary tension to recede in the coming days and weeks. But they acknowledged in interviews with the Washington Examiner that it will take some time and effort on the part Cochran and McDaniel supporters alike.
The general election should be a lock for Cochran, but with former Rep. Travis Childers, a conservative Democrat, on the ballot, the GOP can't take the November contest for granted.
“It’s been a very bitter primary and we have some healing to do,” Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., said.
“Emotions are very high right now,” Rep. Gregg Harper, R-Miss., added. “But, what is the purpose of a political party? To win elections, and we want to make sure that we maintain this seat in the hands of the Republican Party, which I'm confident we will do.”
Both Wicker and Harper backed Cochran in the primary.
McDaniel, 41, narrowly won the June 3 primary, but finished just shy of the 50 percent he needed to clinch the nomination and oust Cochran, 76, who is seeking a seventh term. The incumbent rebounded unexpectedly in the runoff, beating McDaniel by about 2 percentage points, or around 7,000 votes.
McDaniel and his supporters are incensed because Cochran’s victory was made possible by thousands of Democrats who crossed over and supported him in the runoff.
But Cochran’s campaign and his supporters followed the regulations that govern Mississippi elections. The state does not register voters by party, and all primaries are considered open to any voter that wants to participate, the only caveat being that if a voter participates in one party’s primary, he or she can’t turn around and vote in another party’s runoff.
Cochran’s strategy was to court Republicans and non-Republicans alike who had not voted on June 3 and it worked.
Cochran's unorthodox approach included a heavy focus on turning out liberal African-American voters, and McDaniel's Tea Party supporters feel as though Cochran betrayed a Republican Party that they contend is supposed to put the desires of conservatives first.
But Cochran supporters counter that even McDaniel can’t prove that all of his voters consider themselves Republicans first, as opposed to libertarians, conservative independents or others who have flocked to the Tea Party movement.
And, they argue that Cochran should be applauded for making inroads with Mississippi Democrats and helping the GOP expand its appeal to a voting bloc that doesn’t typically vote Republican — a conundrum that has preoccupied party strategists.
“Going out and broadening the base of the party, asking more Mississippians to participate in the ballot that was going to determine the next senator? No I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that,” Wicker said, somewhat incredulous that his colleague’s campaign strategy was being questioned.
“In 1994, I was in a runoff, the first time I was elected to the House, and we were sure going through the voter lists trying to find people that hadn’t voted in the Democratic primary to see if I could persuade them that I was the guy that needed to win that runoff,” Wicker added. “Eligible voters, broaden the base, win elections.”
McDaniel isn’t happy about it. On Wednesday, he released this statement:
"The conservative movement is alive in Mississippi. The Republicans who voted last night made it clear they're looking for conservative change in Mississippi.
"But the results also tell another story. They tell the story of some members of our party who are willing to engage in tactics unbecoming of the party of Ronald Reagan. It's no wonder so many conservatives don't feel welcome in the Republican party.
"If our party and our conservative movement are to co-exist, it is paramount that we ensure the sanctity of the election process is upheld. And we will do that. In the case of yesterday's election, we must be absolutely certain that our Republican primary was won by Republican voters."
"In the coming days, our team will look into the irregularities to determine whether a challenge is warranted. After we've examined the data, we will make a decision about whether and how to [proceed].”