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5 things we learned from Tuesday's primaries

By Paul Steinhauser, Peter Hamby and Ashley Killough, CNN
June 25, 2014 -- Updated 1310 GMT (2110 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Establishment GOP has big night after Cantor's shocking loss two weeks ago
  • Who would thought a GOP-black Democrat coalition could win in the South
  • Biggest winner Tuesday in Maryland wasn't even on the ballot

Washington (CNN) -- The establishment struck back.

Two weeks after House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's primary loss to a little-known and underfunded tea party challenger rocked the Republican Party, incumbent and mainstream GOP candidates came out on top in several high-profile primary showdowns.

In Tuesday's marquee race, longtime Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi narrowly fended off a fierce primary challenge from state Sen. Chris McDaniel, who edged Cochran in the primary three weeks ago. Cochran's victory might have come from crossover Democratic voters -- courted by the senator -- who cast ballots in the runoff.

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Cochran was joined by Rep. James Lankford, who easily won the primary in Oklahoma over two other major candidates who enjoyed tea party support in the race to succeed a retiring senator. Former Rep. Bob Beauprez, considered the mainstream pick in Colorado's GOP gubernatorial primary, topped three other candidates. And former South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster, the ultimate insider, won a landslide victory in the state's Republican lieutenant governor runoff.

In another high-profile showdown, Democratic Rep. Charlie Rangel of New York, who was first elected to Congress 44 years ago, claimed victory in what he says will be his last campaign. But Rangel's opponent, state Sen. Adriano Espaillat, who nearly ousted Rangel in the Democratic primary two years ago, wasn't conceding the tight race early Wednesday morning.

And in Maryland, outgoing Gov. Martin O'Malley, a potential 2016 Democratic presidential contender, wasn't on the ballot but might have been the biggest winner of the night.

Here are five things we learned from Tuesday's primaries.

1. Creative coalition: Tuesday night's results illustrate the unscripted political realities that play out in particular states on Election Day.

Thad Cochran wins Mississippi primary
Who is leading in primary races?
Who is leading in primary races?

So who would have thought that in today's political climate -- and in a deeply red state like Mississippi -- a 76-year-old long-time Republican incumbent could beat back a serious tea party challenge?

And who would have thought that he could do it by courting the African-American vote while touting his longevity in Washington.

Cochran's allies worked aggressively in recent weeks to reach out to Democrats, especially African-Americans who make up 37% of the state's population.

But McDaniel argued the tactic was a stretch, saying in his election night speech that Cochran showed his willingness to win at any cost, even diluting the party if he needed to.

"There is something a bit unusual about a Republican primary decided by liberal Democrats," he said. "So much for principles. I guess they can take some consolation that they did something tonight for once again compromising, for once again reaching across the aisle, for abandoning the conservative movement."

The question is whether the strategy can be applied beyond Mississippi. McDaniel warned Tuesday night that it certainly could.

"Today the conservative movement took a backseat to liberal Democrats," he said. "If it can happen here, it can happen anywhere. And that's why we will never stop fighting."

2. Experience still counts: Along with Cochran, Rangel also used his experience in Washington to sell himself to voters.

"I think because of the confidence (the voters) had in me, with my service and their belief with the decision they had to make, that I was their best choice," Rangel told reporters.

For Cochran's part, the senator actively reminded voters of his work to secure federal funds for programs used widely in the state.

It's not the kind of message that Republicans tout in these days of fiscal conservatism. But in this case, it worked for Cochran.

He also stressed his position and influence in the Senate, saying if Republicans win control of the chamber, he would likely become chairman of the appropriations committee, a seat that could help him get even more money for the state.

Complete coverage of the 2014 midterm elections

3. Oklahoma blunder? Cochran's comeback was the big shocker of the night, but there was another surprise in Oklahoma, where Rep. James Lankford cleared 50% of the vote and skipped a runoff against his top rival, Oklahoma House Speaker T.W. Shannon, in the race to replace retiring Sen. Tom Coburn.

Many observers figured the primary was surely headed to an August runoff.

Shannon, an African-American who is a member of the Chickasaw Nation, had all kinds of national buzz. He was endorsed by a batch of tea party groups, and by Ted Cruz, Mike Lee and Sarah Palin. Cruz even cut an ad for Shannon, but it wasn't enough.

In fact, the help Shannon received from outside conservative groups, namely the Senate Conservatives Fund and Oklahomans for a Conservative Future, may have backfired.

After Lankford, a member of the House Republican leadership who voted to raise the debt ceiling last year, was attacked in TV ads from the two pro-Shannon groups, Coburn weighed in with a pseudo-endorsement, praising Lankford as "a man of absolute integrity." Lankford used the kind words in a television ad that ran late in the primary and may have helped push him over the top on Tuesday.

4. The O'Malley effect: It's often the case that governors leave office on poor terms with the public. Luster fades, scandals creep, and finicky voters start to search for fresh faces. Sitting governors, too, often shy away from wading into primaries and endorsing candidates to succeed them.

But none of that looked to be true on Tuesday night in Maryland, where outgoing Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley, a potential presidential candidate in 2016, had taken something of a gamble heading into Election Day. He endorsed a pair of statewide candidates who ultimately coasted to primary wins by embracing his progressive policies and his popularity with rank-and-file Democrats (His approval rating among Democrats reached almost 80% in a Washington Post poll earlier this year).

In the state's attorney general primary, O'Malley's preferred candidate, state Sen. Brian Frosh, defeated Jon Cardin, the nephew of Sen. Ben Cardin.

And in the state's marquee gubernatorial primary, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown thumped his main opponent, the gaffe-prone Attorney General Doug Gansler, by draping himself in the O'Malley banner, happily boasting about the state's premier education rating among other policies.

Gansler struggled to draw a contrast with Brown, O'Malley's anointed successor. When Gansler raised questions about the state's troubled health care exchange rollout and tried to tie the problems to the lieutenant governor, Brown accused Gansler of attacking Obamacare. Running against O'Malley in a Democratic primary was mostly futile.

Fresh off a buzzy trip to Iowa last weekend, O'Malley bolstered his political standing back home on Tuesday. All in all, a pretty strong week for one of the Democratic Party's leading alternatives to Hillary Clinton.

5. If at first you don't succeed...: Twenty-four years after he first ran for lieutentant governor, South Carolina's Henry McMaster is a major step closer to finally winning the office. The former state attorney general easily won the GOP primary runoff, topping businessman Mike Campbell, the son of the late Caroll Campbell, a popular Republican governor.

A former U.S. attorney, McMaster's the ultimate political insider, serving nearly a decade as chairman of the state's Republican Party. With a win in November, he'll be considered a contender for governor in 2018.

What made this race interesting to a national audience was that two former Republican presidential candidates who may run for the White House again in 2016 took sides.

In the closing days of the runoff campaign, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania stumped with McMaster while former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee campaigned for Campbell.

South Carolina plays an important role in presidential politics -- its primary is the first in the South each cycle.

"It's a big win for McMaster but a big win for Santorum as well," GOP consultant Bruce Haynes, a South Carolina native, told CNN. "Santorum already had bona fides with faith and values voters. Now he's wisely allied himself with the dominant figure in South Carolina's GOP establishment. Santorum is doing the quiet but important work of building an organization, and he had a very good night in the Palmetto State."

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