FLOWOOD, MISSISSIPPI -- One of the most unusual political races in recent memory will end today with a group of “election observers” planning to show up at voting locations to look for any shenanigans -- and state officials here essentially promising to watch the watchers.
While six-term incumbent Sen. Thad Cochran and his conservative challenger state senator Chris McDaniel campaigned across the state, this latest drama was unfolding in a race that has already featured plenty of twists and turns. The Senate Conservatives Fund, Tea Party Patriots and Freedom Works, the anti-establishment conservative groups backing McDaniel, have announced they plan to send volunteers to polling locations in the state, ostensibly to make sure people who already cast ballots in the Democratic primary on June 3 do not violate state law and vote in the GOP runoff Tuesday.
The announced plans quickly turned into a controversy with racial overtones because the Cochran campaign has been reaching out to encourage black Democratic voters who didn’t vote in the June 3 primary to crossover and back the incumbent. Democrats here and nationally raised the specter of black voters being intimidated at the polls by white conservatives.
“We’ll be on the lookout,” Mississippi NAACP President Derrick Johnson told The Clarion Ledger in an interview.
By the end of Monday, the Mississippi Secretary of State and Attorney General’s offices had released a joint statement that seemed a direct rebuttal to the SCF plans. The memo says, “There is no authority in state law for a PAC or other outside group to place ‘election observers’ in Mississippi polling places.”
“Observers from both the Secretary of State’s Office and the Attorney General’s Office will be in Mississippi counties on Election Day,” the memo also notes. Attorney General Jim Hood is a Democrat; Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann is a Republican.
"The Republican Party has a primary for Republicans. That’s the way it’s designed. "
It’s not clear exactly if, how many or where the conservative election observers will actually appear, although the state’s black Democrats are largely in coastal areas like Biloxi along with Jackson, the biggest city in Mississippi. And while blacks make up more than a third of the electorate in this state, no one is sure if a significant number of these stalwart Democrats will opt for Cochran simply because is less conservative than McDaniel.
The trio of conservatives groups are officially independent of the McDaniel campaign. But when NBC News asked McDaniel about the election monitors, he did not disavow them.
“As the chairman of the (state) senate elections committee, I’ve always just wanted fair elections. That’s all,” he said.
He added, “We just want fair elections.”
In truth, the poll watchers controversy may ultimately not matter. McDaniel is the clear favorite to win here, with his base of anti-establishment voters eager to cast out Cochran. Polls of the race suggest he is ahead, and that the contest may not be as close as earlier this month.
McDaniel has shifted his approach little from the initial primary election that he narrowly won, attacking Cochran for staying in Washington too long and suggesting the incumbent is not a strong opponent of Obamacare and other Democratic initiatives.
Cochran’s open courting of Democrats has only buttressed McDaniel’s message.
“It’s unfortunate. The Republican Party has a primary for Republicans. That’s the way it’s designed. And that’s the way it’s supposed to be. I am a Reagan conservative. I’m not ashamed of that,” McDaniel told reporters in this town just outside Jackson. “Senator Cochran, however, has shown his true colors. We knew him to be a liberal Republican. By reaching out to liberal Democrats, he has confirmed what we have always known.”
Cochran, meanwhile, has radically altered his approach over the last three weeks. While emphasizing he is a conservative, his campaign is now almost akin to a general election race where McDaniel is the Republican and Cochran the Democrat. The 76-year-old Cochran is not just courting blacks, but voters of every stripe on a promise to go to Washington and bring money home to help Mississippi’s economy.
At one of his events on Monday in Jackson, four of his supporters praised the senator, Cochran himself spoke for a few minutes, and then Sen. John McCain endorsed his longtime colleague. At most GOP events, bashing President Obama is a major feature of nearly every speech.
Not here. Only McCain even mentioned Obama, while nearly every speaker praised Cochran’s long history of bringing money back to one of the country’s poorest states.
“Thad Cochran gets it done for Mississippi. He gets it done for the shipyard. He gets it done for education and highways,” said U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker in praising his colleague. “He has gotten it done for 40 years for the state of Mississippi.”
The race has seen its share of strange controversies. In the days before the initial primary, a McDaniel supporter allegedly broke into the nursing home room where Cochran’s wife lives and took a photo of her. The supporter was arrested. On primary night, another group of McDaniel supporters were found locked in a courthouse where ballots had been counted earlier that an evening, although no charges were filed.