JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Questions about campaign decorum in Mississippi and an Iowa candidate's vow to "make 'em squeal" in Washington are at the center of two Senate Republican primaries on Tuesday, as voters in eight states pick their candidates for Senate, House and gubernatorial races.
For six-term Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran, it's the race of a lifetime against conservative challenger Chris McDaniel, the faces of establishment Washington and the tea party movement that drove the GOP to the House majority in 2010. McDaniel, 41, has commanded considerable energy from Mississippi's conservatives to counter any damage his campaign suffered when four of his supporters were arrested on charges of photographing Cochran's bedridden wife in a bizarre plot. Cochran, 76, has campaigned with Southern gentility, the GOP establishment's support and a promise to leverage his Senate seniority for federal help for the state.
Cochran's clout and state election rules that allow any eligible voter to cast a ballot in any nominating contest prompted Vicksburg Mayor George Flaggs to vote for Cochran.
A black Democrat who served 26 years in the state House before winning the city office in 2013, Flaggs said Tuesday he made his choice in part because Cochran secured federal money for the city's U.S. Army Corps of Engineers research station.
"I just think Thad's been good for Mississippi," Flaggs told The Associated Press in a phone interview. "I don't have nothing against Chris. I just like Thad. He's always been a friend of mine."
Sylvia G. Ketcham, 80, voted in the Jackson suburb of Ridgeland, saying she did not like the dirty campaigning.
"I am a senior citizen myself, and I want to keep our senior citizen in office because he deserves it," Ketcham said, referring to Cochran.
Mississippi elections officials said turnout was sparse in the first hours of voting. In northern DeSoto County, which is key to the Republican Senate primary, GOP executive committee member Ellen Jernigan said lines were shorter than usual.
"The rain probably scared some people away," Jernigan said. "Maybe it will pick up later."
McDaniel voted early Tuesday in his hometown of Ellisville. Cochran cast an early ballot on Saturday in Oxford.
What Cochran calls a "Mississippi moment" is part of a Senate primary derby Tuesday in seven states — also including Alabama, Iowa, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico and South Dakota — that will help determine whether Republicans have a credible chance of gaining the six seats required to take control of the chamber from Democrats.
Voters in those seven states plus California will also choose nominees in the race for the House, where Republicans have a clear advantage of staying in the majority. Gubernatorial primaries are taking place in Alabama, Iowa, New Mexico, South Dakota and California, where Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown is seeking a fourth term this fall.
Attention focused, however, on the Senate races.
In Iowa, Republican hopeful Joni Ernst was leading in a Des Moines Register poll after gaining national notoriety from an ad in which she cites her experience on a farm and vows to "make 'em squeal' in Washington if elected. The poll showed her with 36 percentage points — 1 point higher than the threshold for winning the nomination outright and avoiding a state convention later this year.
Supporting her in a last-minute swing around the state was Mitt Romney, the GOP's 2012 presidential nominee. Romney did not endorse Cochran in Mississippi, which voted for former Sen. Rick Santorum in that year's Republican presidential primaries. Santorum endorsed McDaniel in his bid to unseat Cochran.
Mississippi's GOP showdown was thought to be close, and both sides were making 11th-hour pushes through the state.
Cochran campaigned Monday with leading figures of state's Republican establishment and cast himself as a reliable opponent of President Barack Obama.
In an interview between stops Monday, McDaniel said he wants to "end cronyism in Washington, D.C," and vowed to push for term limits and a constitutional balanced budget amendment.
Associated Press writers Tom Beaumont in Iowa and Jack Elliott Jr. in Mississippi contributed to this report.