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Veteran Republican senator narrowly defeats tea party challenger in Mississippi primary runoff

Supporters for Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y. watch election returns during a primary election night gathering, Tuesday, June 24, 2014, in New York. Rangel is seeking his 23rd term against opponent state Sen. Adriano Espaillat. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

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Supporters for Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y. watch election returns during a primary election night gathering, Tuesday, June 24, 2014, in New York. Rangel is seeking his 23rd term against opponent state Sen. Adriano Espaillat. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

WASHINGTON - A six-term Mississippi senator narrowly survived a challenge from a tea party-backed candidate in the southern state's hard-fought Republican primary election runoff, stunting the conservative anti-tax movement's bid to for a more powerful voice in Congress.

The race reflected the sharp divisions in Republican ranks, pitting Washington clout against insistence on conservative purity. Sen. Thad Cochran's margin of victory was narrow, but it was still a major triumph for mainstream Republicans after they were stunned earlier this month when a little-known tea party-backed college professor ousted the party's second most powerful member of the House of Representatives, Eric Cantor of Virginia.

As voters in six other states went to the polls Tuesday to pick candidates for the November general election ballot, Cochran beat back a bid by Mississippi state lawmaker Chris McDaniel, who was heavily financed by outside conservative groups and had the backing of former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin.

McDaniel had collected more votes than the establishment-backed Cochran in the original June 3 primary, but was short of the 50 per cent needed to avoid the runoff. With 99 per cent of precincts reporting Tuesday, Cochran led with 51 per cent to McDaniel's 49 per cent.

Cochran's victory continues a streak of triumphs by mainstream Republican candidates over tea party challengers in Senate primaries in Kentucky, Georgia and North Carolina. Those victories were critical to Republican hopes of winning control of the Senate in the November general election. In the past two election cycles in 2010 and 2012, tea party candidates defeated more mainstream Republicans in primaries, but were perceived as too radical or unprepared for the Senate and lost to Democrats in the general election.

The Mississippi race had offered the best remaining chance for conservative organizations and tea party groups to oust an incumbent Republican senator, and they invested millions of dollars against Cochran.

Mississippi most likely would have remained in Republican hands even if McDaniel had won. Still, Cochran's victory was likely a comfort to mainstream Republicans shaken by the stunning defeat earlier this month of Cantor, who quickly resigned as House majority leader.

Cochran will face Democrat Travis Childers, a former congressman, in the general election.

A defiant McDaniel offered no explicit concession, but instead complained of "dozens of irregularities" that he implied were due to Cochran courting Democrats and independents.

Cochran, with his political survival at stake, reached out to traditionally Democratic voters — African-Americans and union members — an appeal that infuriated McDaniel and his supporters.

McDaniel had held up Cochran as the face of an out-of-touch Congress responsible for a blight of federal overspending resulting in a $17 trillion national debt.

The silver-haired Cochran defended the spending — specifically, the billions in federal dollars he delivered for disaster relief, military bases and agriculture in his home state. He has spent almost half of his 76 years in the Senate, including decades on the influential Appropriations Committee, which he could chair again if Republicans gain a Senate majority.

In another setback for the tea party, Rep. James Lankford of Oklahoma won the Republican nomination over a Palin-backed opponent in the race to succeed Sen. Tom Coburn, who is retiring with two years left in his term. Lankford, a member of the party's House leadership team, is all but assured of becoming the next senator in the solidly Republican state.

In Colorado's governor's race, former Rep. Bob Beauprez won a crowded primary that included 2008 longshot presidential candidate Tom Tancredo, a staunch immigration opponent. That was welcome news to Republicans who feared that Tancredo could hurt the party's chances of unseating Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper in November.

Democrats also had a veteran lawmaker vulnerable to a challenge from within his own party. In New York City's Harlem section, 84-year-old Democratic Rep. Charles Rangel defeated state Sen. Adriano Espaillat in what was a bruising fight that shed light on the changing face of a district that was once one of the nation's black political power bases.

Rangel, once arguably the most influential black elected official in the U.S, drew criticism last month when he dismissed the 59-year-old Espaillat as a candidate whose only accomplishment was to be a Dominican in a majority Latino district. Rangel was weakened after 2010 ethics violations that forced him to give up the chairmanship of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, and his heavily Democratic district was then redrawn to include parts of the Bronx, which along with the accelerating gentrification of Harlem transformed a heavily black district into one that was majority Hispanic.

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