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Veteran Republican senator defeats tea party rival

WASHINGTON -- A longtime Mississippi senator narrowly defeated a rival backed by the small-government tea party movement in a bruising, costly Republican runoff, a major win for mainstream Republicans two weeks after they were stunned by the defeat of a top party leader.

Sen. Thad Cochran's victory on Tuesday — the marquee race on a day when votes were held in seven states — was the first big test for the party establishment since the No. 2 Republican in the House of Representatives, Eric Cantor, lost two weeks ago to a little-known college professor loosely associated with the tea party.

Cochran defeated state legislator Chris McDaniel, who collected more votes than Cochran in the original June 3 primary, but was short of the 50 percent needed to avoid the runoff. With 99 percent of precincts reporting Tuesday, Cochran led with 51 percent to McDaniel's 49 percent.

Cochran's victory continues a streak of triumphs by mainstream Republican senators over tea party challengers. That has been crucial to Republican hopes for winning control of the Senate in the November general election. In the two previous elections, tea party candidates defeated more mainstream Republicans in primaries, only to lose to Democrats after being perceived as too radical or unstable.

Mississippi is solidly Republican and probably would have remained in Republican hands even if McDaniel had won. Still, Cochran's victory is likely to comfort mainstream Republicans shaken by Cantor's defeat.

The race reflected the sharp divisions in Republican ranks, pitting Washington clout against insistence on conservative purity.

In a brief speech to supporters, Cochran thanked those who helped him secure a “great victory ... It's a group effort. It's not a solo. And so we all have a right to be proud of our state tonight.”

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.

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U.S. Senator Thad Cochran, R-Mississippi, waves to supporters and volunteers at his runoff election victory party, at the Mississippi Children's Museum in Jackson, Mississippi, Tuesday, June 24. (AP)

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