JACKSON — A tight timeline and potential cash crunch could make it impossible for tea party-backed Chris McDaniel to overturn his Republican primary loss to six-term Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran.
McDaniel has called the outcome a sham and excoriated Cochran on television and talk radio for seeking votes from “liberal Democrats.” While McDaniel stops short of mentioning race, Mississippi is a state where Democrat is often synonymous with black. Cochran says there’s nothing wrong with seeking support from Democrats and independents — it’s something he’s done for decades.
McDaniel faces daunting obstacles. In addition to the difficulty of proving widespread illegal voting, state law and state history also may work against him.
McDaniel finished 1,418 votes ahead of Cochran in the June 3 primary, when the runoff was triggered because neither candidate won 50 percent of the vote. In the June 24 runoff, Cochran defeated McDaniel by 7,667 votes, or 51 percent, according to certified results. Turnout jumped by 63,295 votes to 382,197 in the runoff.
When McDaniel goes to court to seek a new election, he will have to show evidence to substantiate his claims of widespread illegal voting, which he has not done so far, or persuade a judge that the election was so sloppily conducted that a new runoff should be ordered.
Mississippi voters don’t register by party, but state law prohibits people from voting in one party’s primary and another party’s runoff in the same election cycle. McDaniel claims thousands voted in the June 3 Democratic primary as well as the June 24 GOP runoff. The Cochran campaign said after reviewing records in 61 of the 82 counties, it found 500 potentially questionable votes, but the secret ballot makes it impossible to know if they went to Cochran or McDaniel.
Election challenges are more likely to succeed when candidates are separated by fewer votes, said Derek Muller, a professor at Pepperdine University law school in California who has been following the Mississippi Senate election.
“Once you’re in the thousands, it’s extremely difficult to find fraud or problems that are that widespread,” Muller said.
Money is a problem, too. Even after the Senate Conservatives Fund wired McDaniel $70,000 for his challenge, he begged for money. “We don’t currently have the resources to mount the legal challenge that this case deserves,” McDaniel wrote Wednesday in the latest of several emails soliciting donations.
State law and state history also make a successful challenge by McDaniel a long shot at best.
Mississippi law requires McDaniel to file his first election challenge with the state Republican executive committee. His campaign attorney, Mitch Tyner, said that is likely to happen next week. Ten days later, McDaniel could file a lawsuit in any county where he believes problems occurred. The state Supreme Court would appoint a special judge.
The general-election sample ballot must be given to local election officials by Sept. 10, which is 55 days before the Nov. 4 general election. That squeezes the time for a lawsuit and a new primary runoff.
“It is absolutely stacked against the person who wants to challenge an election,” Tyner said.
While Mississippi courts have ordered some new local elections, there has been no court-ordered do-over of a statewide election in at least the past six decades of records reviewed by AP. Tyner said he had found no examples of a Mississippi court ever ordering a new statewide vote.
There is one bright spot for McDaniel, even though it’s an option Tyner hopes to avoid because of the potential for confusion: State law says a new primary could be ordered even after someone wins the general election. Tyner said he might call individual voters to testify, but he’ll also ask a judge for quick consideration.
The Cochran camp, meanwhile, says it’s focusing on the general election, where the ballot includes two other candidates, Democratic former U.S. Rep. Travis Childers and Reform Party candidate Shawn O’Hara, who has run unsuccessfully for a long list of statewide offices since 1991.