Could there be yet another election in the Republican Senate primary in Mississippi?
More than two weeks after six-term incumbent Thad Cochran won the GOP runoff against Tea Party challenger Chris McDaniel, campaign workers are still swarming county courthouses in the Magnolia State trying to find evidence to overturn the election. Although Cochran won by 7,667 votes on election night, McDaniel’s campaign alleges that enough votes were improperly cast to call the result into question.
McDaniel has hired Mitch Tyner, a prominent Mississippi trial lawyer who was a long-shot Republican candidate for governor in 2003, to lead his legal team. In a press conference this week outside a courthouse in Jackson, McDaniel’s lawyer claimed that there were lots of allegations and reports of voter fraud in the race. At the time, when the margin between the two was only 6,700, Tyner said that the McDaniel campaign didn’t need to find that many illegal votes to force a do-over of the runoff but thought they would find ample evidence. The illegal votes would have come from voters who cast a ballot in the Democratic primary on June 3 but then participated in the June 24 GOP runoff in violation of state law, he said. Tyner went on to note that correct legal remedy if the runoff was called into question was “a new election.” Yet, as strange as the idea of Mississippi essentially holding a do-ever might seem, it happened just last year.
In Hattiesburg, the fourth largest city in the state, a second mayoral election was held in September 2013. In the initial election, incumbent Mayor Johnny DuPree, a Democrat, held off challenger David Ware, an independent, by thirty-seven votes. Ware went to court claiming a number of irregularities, including issues with hundreds of absentee ballots. Ware sued and after a long and well-publicized trial, a jury seemed to be willing to award him victory by a nine to three vote, the minimum needed for a civil verdict in the trial. However, when asked to give the verdict in public by the presiding judge, one voter recanted. The resulting confusion created chaos and eventually the judge declared a mistrial and simply ordered a new election be held instead. In that election, which was also rife with controversy and featured monitors both from the state and federal government, DuPree won again on a higher turnout by a margin of 202 votes.
Tyner pointed the Hattiesburg race as precedent for having a second election. However, Pete Perry, a consultant for Ware throughout his legal contest and Cochran supporter, said the comparison wasn’t valid.
Perry, the chair of the Hinds County Republican Party—who received a brief moment of national attention when he was called on to retrieve McDaniel supporters who had locked themselves in the county courthouse on the night of the first primary— though there were “absolutely no similarities” between the Hattiesburg mayoral election and the Senate primary.
In Hattiesburg, the Ware campaign didn’t allege fraud in court (although Perry said there were many issues of vote fraud that they could have raised). Instead, they focused on absentee ballots, which he noted “can be subject to all sorts of different problems if they’re not handled right.” Perry said most of the absentee ballots questioned in the mayoral race had six or seven different issues. As he described it “there was a 35 vote difference and 500 problems.” In contrast, he noted that the current margin between Cochran and McDaniel was almost 8,000 votes.
Noel Fritsch, a spokesman for the McDaniel campaign told The Daily Beast that there were “thousands and thousands of illegal crossover votes” cast on June 24. According to Fritsch, these votes would serve “as the legal basis of any challenge if there is a challenge.” However, Fritsch refused to comment on any similarities to Hattiesburg, saying simply that he “wasn’t an expert” on the race.
McDaniel, though, does have some expertise. At the time of the two mayoral elections, the Tea Partier served as chair of the Elections Committee of the Mississippi State Senate and told The Hattiesburg American that the issues didn’t come as a surprise because “for years, we’ve been aware of fraud in the system.” The state senator said he was concerned about how to “reform [election laws] intelligently” but wanted to make sure that any changes “worked well on the ground level.”
The Cochran campaign pooh-poohed any potential challenge. In a statement, Jordan Russell, a spokesman for the campaign, said there were “extremely low numbers of questionable votes” and said only about 500 votes called into question after the ballots in 61 of the state’s 82 counties had inspected. He went on to say that the McDaniel campaign had provided “zero evidence” for its allegations and for any potential challenge.
The legal path for the Tea Party candidate to take the fight to the courts though is still somewhat convoluted. Tyner described to The Daily Beast what steps the campaign would take: At present, the campaign has sent “hundreds of trained workers … to every county courthouse in the state” to work with the county clerks and inspect the pollbooks to identify votes that the campaign found questionable. Tyner said that some clerks, like in Humphreys County in the Mississippi Delta, couldn’t be more helpful while others, like in Jackson County on the Gulf Coast, were “putting up lots of roadblocks.”
However, once the election is finally certified, McDaniel then has to file a challenge with the executive committee of the state party. The state party can choose to take testimony, go with the numbers certified by the state or even change the election results and make McDaniel the winner. But, in Tyner’s opinion, the most likely result is that the Mississippi Republican Party would do nothing. The contest would then go to state court and go through the legal process there.
Tyner also noted that the challenge wouldn’t be limited to illegal crossover voters. He emphasized to The Daily Beast that they were also looking to uncover evidence that the Cochran campaign could have bought votes via “walking around money.” While he said that he had never actually witnessed vote-buying, noting that “walking around money is normally associated with the Democratic Party and not something we see on the Republican side,” Tyner claimed that “it seemed to be rampant and not controlled” in the runoff. He insisted that the election challenge was about more than just this one U.S. Senate race and about the very “integrity of elections in Mississippi.”
In the meantime, as election workers inspect ballot after ballot at county courthouses, the specter of Hattiesburg will hang over the ongoing contest. As Perry pointed out, the memory of the mayoral election is “still pretty fresh” in the minds of Mississippians who follow politics. The trial was livestreamed on the Internet and the controversy was “front page news every day” in the Magnolia State.