The brutal Senate primary contest in Mississippi may be over, but the Republican infighting that marked the race rages on.
Incumbent Thad Cochran narrowly won the fight against Tea Party-backed challenger Chris McDaniel earlier this month. But as McDaniel continues to challenge the results of the runoff, the debate has morphed into an angry dispute about race, voter fraud and the deep divide between the GOP’s conservative and establishment wings both in Mississippi and around the country.
Instead of conceding to Cochran and pledging to back him in November, McDaniel and other anti-Washington conservatives are pointedly questioning the legitimacy of the incumbent’s victory because of the Cochran campaign’s support from Democrats – including many African American voters. Some Tea Party activists have urged McDaniel to run a write-in campaign against Cochran, although most of the major groups supporting McDaniel say they are ready to move on.
“In Mississippi, conservatives won the primary,” Rush Limbaugh said on his radio program last week. “More Republicans voted for McDaniel than voted for Cochran in the runoff. You take away the Democrat turnout ginned up maybe by Republican establishment figures who are out there raising all kinds of money against the Tea Party guy. Nobody knows for sure, but I wouldn't be surprised if the money for the robo-calls and that flier came from Republican sources.”
McDaniel and his supporters have made a series of accusations against the Cochran campaign. McDaniel himself has suggested that thousands of voters in the GOP runoff election, which he lost by about 6800 votes, should have been ineligible because they voted in the Democratic primary on June 3. The candidate has not produced evidence to support this claim.
“They say they're going to fight the liberals in Washington, but they embraced the liberals in Mississippi just to win an election,” McDaniel said in a Fox News interview on Thursday. “It's the worst style of politicking I can imagine. They did it. They've gotten away with it so far. And that's why we're looking at voter irregularities.”
The national Tea Party groups that backed McDaniel have also suggested it was improper for Cochran and his allies to recruit black voters and other Democrats to back him in the primary, even though Mississippi law allows them to do so. McDaniel supporters have even cited a provision in state law that disallows a voter from supporting a candidate in a primary that he or she does not intend to back in the general election, even though it’s unclear how this would ever be enforced.
Limbaugh was making another accusation: that the black pastors and other groups who ran ads and put up flyers to support Cochran used money that came from the senator’s allies. He offered no proof for this claim either.
McDaniel, Limbaugh and other conservatives are particularly incensed about flyers and telephone calls targeted at blacks, designed to link McDaniel to the Tea Party. One flyer circulated said “the Tea Party intends to stop blacks from voting” and suggested McDaniel “made racist comments” on a radio show he once hosted. Other flyers and some ads in black newspapers noted Cochran had supported increasing federal funding for historically black colleges.
Cochran backers have defended their strategy of seeking to widen the electorate in the three-week runoff, arguing they sought both more liberal-leaning voters but also conservatives who had not participated on June 3. Cochran adviser Stuart Stevens said black voters were “certainly part” of the coalition that elected Cochran, but not all of it.
Other analysts who have examined the data argue that increased turnout in majority-black counties largely explains Cochran’s victory. In Hinds County, which is about 70 percent black and includes Jackson, Mississippi’s largest city, Cochran won about 7,000 additional votes on Tuesday compared to the June 3 contest.
Race was a factor in this race even before les week’s vote. The Senate Conservatives Fund and other Tea Party groups supporting McDaniel had pledged to have election observers at polling places around the state. The NAACP in Mississippi and national Democrats objected, saying such activity hinted at past race-based voter intimidation in the deep South. State officials in Mississippi released a memo on the day before the election noting that independent groups are not allowed to station observers at polling sites.
It’s not clear how organized the conservative groups were in getting the observers in place. McDaniel has said some people voted illegally, even though election officials had lists of people who voted in the Democratic primary at the polling places and were supposed to bar anyone on those lists from participating in the GOP race.