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June 24, 2014

Thad Cochran, Charles Rangel struggle for political survival

WASHINGTON D.C. —    Veteran lawmakers in peril, Republican Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi and Democratic Rep. Charles Rangel of New York struggled against younger challengers on Tuesday, hoping their seniority and Washington clout could win over voters at home in elections churned by race.

   In a last-ditch effort, six-term Sen. Cochran reached out to traditionally Democratic voters — blacks and union members — in his underdog candidacy against tea party-backed state Sen. Chris McDaniel in a GOP primary runoff. Voters who cast ballots in the June 3 Democratic primary were barred from participating.

   The Mississippi contest that threatened to cast aside the 76-year-old Cochran was the marquee race on a busy June primary day that included New York, Oklahoma, Colorado, Maryland and Utah. Also, voters in a solidly Republican district on Florida's Gulf Coast were choosing a replacement for former Rep. Trey Radel, who resigned in January after pleading guilty to cocaine possession.

   In New York's Harlem and upper Manhattan, the 84-year-old Rangel, a 22-term congressman and the third-most-senior member of the House, faced a rematch against state Sen. Adriano Espaillat, bidding to become the first Dominican-American member of Congress.

   Rangel, one of the founders of the Congressional Black Caucus, 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.

   Two years ago, Rangel prevailed in the primary by fewer than 1,100 votes.

   Despite Congress' abysmal public approval ratings, incumbents have largely prevailed midway through the primary season — with two notable exceptions.

   Little-known college professor Dave Brat knocked out House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in Virginia's Republican primary this month, and Republican Rep. Ralph Hall, 91, lost in a Texas runoff to a younger Republican.

   McDaniel declared as he voted Tuesday, "We are here, we're going to fight for our belief system no matter what, and we're going to reclaim Washington, D.C., one race at a time."

   Cochran and his allies, including former Gov. Haley Barbour, highlighted his decades on the Appropriations Committee and his work directing billions in federal dollars to his home state, one of the poorest in the nation.

   That resonated with Jeanette Tibbetts, a 73-year-old retiree.

   "I'm a ninth-generation Mississippian. ... How can you live in south Mississippi and not see Thad's evidence?" asked Tibbetts, who voted in Hattiesburg on Tuesday.

   Stanley D. Johnson, 55, of Byram, a family and marriage counselor who served 25 years in the Air Force, said he voted for Cochran "because he's not a tea party member."

   "They don't appear to be very inclusive of minorities," said Johnson, who is black and described himself as politically conservative.

   The Cochran appeal to non-Republicans infuriated McDaniel and prompted tea partyers — as well as the NAACP and the Justice Department — to keep tabs on who was voting in Mississippi. State officials also were observing the voting.

   Officials said more absentee ballots had been requested for Tuesday's elections than the June 3 first round of voting, suggesting turnout might be heavier thanks to outside groups' efforts to motivate allies. McDaniel finished first in that round, but he was short of the majority needed for nomination.

   Outside groups, from tea party organizations to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have spent some $12 million on the race. Former Green Bay Packers quarterback — and Gulfport, Mississippi, native — Brett Favre called the 76-year-old Cochran a "proven and respected leader" in one Chamber ad.

   McDaniel, 41, an attorney and former radio host, has the strong backing of former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and the tea party movement, which sees his political approach as a change from a Washington status quo of mainstream conservatives willing to compromise.

   Kellie Phipps, a 42-year-old public school teacher from Taylorsville, voted for McDaniel. "I think we need some new blood," Phipps said.

   In the campaign, McDaniel has had to distance himself from past controversial remarks that he uttered about Hispanics and blacks on his radio broadcast.

   The runoff winner will face Democrat Travis Childers, a former congressman, in the heavily Republican state.

   The Mississippi runoff is one of several internecine GOP contests.

   In Oklahoma's Senate primary, two-term Rep. James Lankford, a member of the House Republican leadership, was battling T.W. Shannon, who was the state's first black House speaker and is a member of the Chickasaw Nation. National tea party groups and the Senate Conservatives Fund have backed Shannon, who also has the support of Palin and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.

   The winner in solidly Republican Oklahoma will replace Sen. Tom Coburn, who is retiring with two years left in his term.

   National Republicans were nervously eyeing Colorado's four-way gubernatorial primary, which includes 2008 presidential candidate Tom Tancredo, an immigration opponent whose presence at the top of the ticket could undercut GOP prospects in November's Senate and House races.

   Voters in Maryland were choosing a successor to outgoing Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley, who is considering a 2016 presidential bid. Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown faced state Attorney General Doug Gansler and state lawmaker Heather Mizeur in the Democratic primary.

   In Florida, Republican Curt Clawson, a former CEO of an aluminum wheel company, was favored to win against Democrat April Freeman and Libertarian Ray Netherwood.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Pettus reported from Mississippi. AP writers Jack Elliott in Morton, Mississippi, Jeff Amy in Taylorsville, Mississippi, and Philip Elliott in Washington contributed.

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