It’s been a week since Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) won the Mississippi Republican primary, but not if you ask Chris McDaniel.
The failed Senate challenger hasn’t conceded to the six-term incumbent, and shows no signs of doing so anytime soon. Instead, the state senator is looking into legal routes to challenge the 6,693-vote margin he says was orchestrated through, at best, illegitimate voter targeting, and at worst through illegal vote-buying.
Mississippi has no statute to force a recount, so McDaniel’s only recourse to challenge the outcome of an election that conservatives have widely panned is through legal means. He and his supporters remain skeptical of the results because Cochran, who finished second in the primary, reached out to black voters to boost him in the runoff three weeks later.
His campaign has more than 150 staff and volunteers fanned out across the state, comparing poll books from the June 3 Democratic primary to those from the June 24 GOP runoff to see if any voters showed up in both elections.
Those duplicates would be thrown out under Mississippi election law, which bars participation in one party's primary and then another party's runoff. The state doesn’t register voters by party, however, and has an open primary system, which allows those who may consider themselves Democrats, but didn’t vote in the Democratic primary, to vote in the GOP runoff.
That bloc was key to Cochran’s runoff win. His campaign and allies made no secret of aggressively courting black Democrats to turn out for him on June 24, increasing turnout in a number of heavily black counties and expanding his win margin in those areas.
McDaniel spokesman Noel Fritsch said that as of Tuesday afternoon the campaign had found more than 3,300 ineligible crossover votes, and counting.
“We’ve examined the poll books in fewer than half the counties in Mississippi,” he said.
The McDaniel campaign has volunteers tackling 75 of the state’s 82 counties, Fritsch said, but they haven’t had access to every poll book because some of the county clerks have been more cooperative than others. He said all of the books would be accessible after the results are certified with the state Republican executive committee.
But Fritsch said the campaign is encouraged by the large number of votes they have yet to pore over.
“Notably, it’s the Delta that constitutes the vast majority that we have not gotten into. So we certainly anticipate we’re going to find many more irregularities in the Delta. And there are 18,000 to 19,000 absentee ballots, so anticipate finding a large number of irregularities there,” he said of the majority black areas.
If McDaniel builds a credible case, the campaign first has to file a challenge with the Republican executive committee, and then 12 days after that he can take his case to the courts.
At least one group is already moving forward with legal action. Conservative election-monitoring group True the Vote filed suit against the Mississippi secretary of state and the Mississippi Republican Party on Tuesday, calling for immediate access to unredacted election records before the result of the election is officially certified by the state party.
“All we are asking is that the MS State Republican Party follow the law; allow their designated county representatives to inspect the poll books and ballots, give them the review time they are permitted by law, and allow them to uphold their responsibility to MS voters,” True the Vote President Catherine Engelbrecht said in a statement.
“True the Vote has been inundated with reports from voters across Mississippi who are outraged to see the integrity of this election being undermined so that politicos can get back to business as usual. Enough is enough,” she continued.
Election law expert Rick Hasen said McDaniel and his allies have a tough case to prove, however.
“To even have a plausible claim they’re going to have to get over 6,000 illegitimate votes. There are lots of people who have similar names,” said Hasen. “It all depends on what evidence they come forward with. Right now it’s a lot of talk. They need to publicly show their evidence, either to a court or release it publicly.”
McDaniel’s continued rabble-rousing runs the risk of further dividing an already splintered Republican Party as it gears up for Cochran’s general election fight. Though he’s heavily favored to defeat Democrat Travis Childers, a number of prominent Mississippi Republicans, including state GOP Chairman Joe Nosef and Sen. Roger Wicker, expressed concerns over the party’s ability to unify before the runoff came to a close.
Cochran’s team dismissed such concerns, with strategist Stuart Stevens saying they’re not looking back.
“We have moved on to the general election. The primary is over. We have [moved on], and so has the public,” Stevens told The Hill.
Stevens suggested McDaniel was keeping the issue alive because it’s a solid moneymaker for the candidate and he's got significant campaign debt — $100,100 at the beginning of June — to pay off.
Indeed, money may be one roadblock to a successful legal challenge. The McDaniel campaign has set up a legal defense fund and is working to fill it, Fritsch said. But legal expert Hasen said that money and time is of the essence in orchestrating a successful challenge.
“These things are very expensive, and of course time works against the challenger. The longer you go away from the election, the less likely the court feels it can overturn the election results, when they’re already in general election mode,” he said.
While crossover votes are currently at the center of McDaniel’s hopes for challenging the results, some conservatives are crying foul over a report out this week that alleges the Cochran campaign engaged in an illegal vote-buying scheme that may have delivered thousands of black Democrats to the polls in exchange for money.
A conservative blogger posted an interview online Monday night with a black self-proclaimed minister in Mississippi who said he had, in fact, been given money to pay to black Democrats in exchange for their votes in the runoff. But that minister was paid for his interview, raising questions about the legitimacy of his claims.
Conservatives seized on the report, however, with FreedomWorks calling on the Department of Justice and the FBI to investigate the claims.
Other conservative groups, however, have abandoned McDaniel. The Club for Growth, initially an enthusiastic supporter of the candidate, congratulated Cochran on his win and has remained mum on McDaniel’s refusal to concede.
And Hasen said claims like the vote-buying allegations could ultimately hurt McDaniel’s cause.
“The campaign doesn’t do itself any favors when it lets unsubstantiated rumors mix with plausible legal theories,” he said.
—This piece was updated at 10 p.m. to reflect the identity of the man alleging vote-buying practices.