Thad Cochran, Chris McDaniel barrel toward runoff

Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran appeared to fall short of claiming the GOP nomination for a seventh term Tuesday, sending the longtime incumbent and his tea party challenger stumbling into a costly runoff election and scrambling the general election landscape in one of the nation’s most conservative states.

Already a savagely personal race, the duel between Cochran and activist state Sen. Chris McDaniel could now drag on until the next vote on June 24 and present national Republicans with a dilemma: Whether to continue supporting the senator and tearing down McDaniel at the potential cost of damaging the party’s eventual nominee.

Outside groups have already spent more than $8 million in the Republican Senate primary, an extraordinary sum in a small state that rarely hosts competitive federal elections. Cochran and his allies have assailed McDaniel as a bumbling snake-oil salesman and finger-in-the wind opportunist who’s out of touch with Mississippi’s priorities. McDaniel and his campaign have attacked Cochran’s record of voting for federal spending, accused him of being soft on President Barack Obama and raised not-so-veiled questions about the senator’s age.