JACKSON — The Mississippi Supreme Court won’t revive an election challenge by a candidate who lost a Republican primary to Sen. Thad Cochran.
Three justices agreed with Cochran’s attorneys, who said state Sen. Chris McDaniel waited too long to challenge Cochran’s victory in the June 24 primary runoff.
A fourth justice, Michael Randolph, sided with Cochran, but for a different reason: He said courts should not be involved in deciding a political dispute over who votes in party primaries.
The 4-2 Supreme Court ruling was handed down three weeks after justices heard oral arguments. Three justices did not participate in the decision.
Cochran’s attorneys, Mark Garriga and Phil Abernethy, said in a statement that the ruling “brings an end to the challenge of the primary runoff election and reconfirms the voters’ choice of Thad Cochran as the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate.
“As we have said from the beginning, regardless of the timeliness of the challenge, the facts continue to show this has always been a baseless challenge, and the will of the voters has now been validated by the Mississippi Supreme Court,” Garriga and Abernethy said.
McDaniel ran with tea party support, and he claims the runoff was tarnished by voting irregularities such as people voting in the June 3 Democratic primary and then crossing over to vote in the June 24 Republican runoff. Mississippi does not register voters by party, but it bans people from voting in one party’s primary and the other party’s runoff in the same election cycle.
State officials already have set a Nov. 4 general election ballot that lists Cochran as the Republican nominee, former U.S. Rep. Travis Childers as the Democratic nominee and Shawn O’Hara as the Reform Party candidate.
McDaniel attorney Mitch Tyner issued a statement that did not say whether McDaniel will pursue other legal action: “While we disagree with the majority, since there was no deadline in the statute to file a challenge, we are glad the Supreme Court finally ruled so Mississippi conservatives can move forward into 2015.”
McDaniel issued a statement saying that “Republicans in Mississippi are still left wanting for justice after June’s Republican primary was decided by more than 40,000 Democrats.”
But he added that “now it is time to turn the page and work to enact true conservative change in Mississippi and in Washington, D.C.”
“It is my hope that conservatives in Mississippi will view this decision as a motivating factor to get involved in Republican politics so we can change our state for the better for future generations.”
Mississippi in 2015 holds election for governor and seven other statewide offices and for all 174 state legislative seats. Tyner said recently that McDaniel might file a federal lawsuit to try to overturn results of the Republican U.S. Senate primary, based on claims that Cochran’s campaign violated Republicans’ First Amendment rights by courting voters who traditionally support Democrats.
Mississippi College law professor Matt Steffey said Randolph took issue with a state law McDaniel had cited — one that a federal appeals court had already found unenforceable. It says people are only supposed to vote in a party’s primary if they intend to support the party’s nominee in the general election.
“You can’t demand that people demonstrate their fidelity to the party orally as they go to vote,” Steffey told The Associated Press on Friday. “It’s just unimaginable that poll watchers would have a lawful way to identify people who look like unreliable Republican voters. Are they going to do that on the basis of race? Are they going to do that on the basis of presumed economic status?”
McDaniel led a three-person Republican primary June 3. Voter turnout increased for the runoff three weeks later, and certified results show Cochran defeated McDaniel by 7,667 votes. Cochran’s camp says the former Senate Appropriations Committee chairman won the runoff fairly by reminding voters of his record in Washington.
Forty-one days after the runoff, McDaniel filed a challenge that sought to overturn Cochran’s victory. A circuit judge dismissed the suit, agreeing with Cochran’s attorneys that McDaniel had missed a 20-day deadline to file it. McDaniel appealed to the state Supreme Court, asking justices to revive his lawsuit so it could go to trial.
Abernethy made the same argument to the Supreme Court that he did in circuit court — that McDaniel’s challenge came too late. Abernethy cited a 1959 Mississippi Supreme Court ruling that a candidate must challenge election results within 20 days. He said although election laws have been updated since then, legislators did not specifically undo the precedent set by the 1959 ruling.
Tyner said state law was substantially rewritten in 1986 and doesn’t set a timeline for challenging results of a multi-county primary.
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