Mississippi Churning

Will Chris McDaniel and his Tea Party army sue to overturn Thad Cochran’s Senate victory?

Chris McDaniel waves as he gets on his campaign bus after a rally on June 23, 2014, in Flowood, Mississippi.
Chris McDaniel waves as he gets on his campaign bus after a rally on June 23, 2014, in Flowood, Mississippi.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

On Monday night, Grant Sowell pulled into a Tupelo, Mississippi, Chick-fil-A and braced himself for the Tea Party meeting. Just four weeks earlier, Senate candidate Chris McDaniel had campaigned at this branch of the proudly Christian chicken-sandwich chain, promising “shock waves through this country” if conservatives helped him win.

McDaniel had forced a runoff—shock waves rumbled as promised—but in Round Two, incumbent Sen. Thad Cochran beat him. The “establishment” succeeded in besting the Tea Party with crossover votes from Democrats.

Sowell, a pastor and businessman who’d campaigned for McDaniel, was leading the first Tea Party meeting since that crushing loss. Typically, 20 or so activists showed up. Thirty showed up on Monday.

“They were fired up,” Sowell recalled. “It’s not just that we lost. It’s how we lost. Outside of anything being illegal, it was just the fact that Chris got the most Republican votes, and the fact [the Cochran campaign] made Chris’ supporters appear to be racists. I hope, and a lot of people hope, there are legal challenges.”

Legal challenges. Outside of Mississippi and outside of the conservative media, the election’s on the books already. The consultants who bailed out Cochran, led by Mississippi native and Romney 2008 and 2012 veteran Stu Stevens, have taken victory laps and explained how a GOP candidate appealed to black Democrats. “Should it come as any shock,” asked Stevens, rhetorically, “that on the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer, African-Americans also wanted to participate in the electoral process?” Speaking at the Aspen Ideas Festival, about as far from a Tea Party meeting as the Voyager 2 probe, Hillary Clinton praised the “major historical importance” of Cochran’s  win.

But to McDaniel and the Tea Party, it feels like a historic fraud. The law was clear, and anyone who voted in the state’s Democratic primary broke it if they voted in the Republican runoff. The McDaniel team prepared for this; they warned about this. Since the election, volunteers have been showing up at polling sites to comb through voter rolls and prove that enough voters crossed over to invalidate the win, and Facebooking what they find.

They’re optimistic, and Team McDaniel is cheering them on. On June 26, the conservative blogger Jim Hoft reported that McDaniel was targeting 10 counties where Democratic votes might have flipped the outcome. Black conservative Kim Wade had photographed just one page of a poll book in which, he claimed, three people had pulled a Democratic ballot on June 3 and a Republican ballot on June 24. The Mississippi Tea Party told reporters that it had found “nearly 800” votes cast this way, in a heavily black county where the Cochran vote had surged from 10,928 to 17,949.

The next day, McDaniel’s campaign made a fundraising pitch. “On June 3rd we won the popular vote,” wrote McDaniel in an email to supporters. “On June 24th we won the Republican primary election. As you might have heard, we’re not quite done. We are in the process of trying to ensure a fair and accurate election took place on Tuesday.” Any interested supporters were told to email a special account at the  Tyner Law Firm in Jackson; after that, the “campaign will plug you in and arm you with the tools you need to be successful.” 

What tools? The law firm isn’t saying, but some conservatives are trying to make a challenge inevitable. “Only a fool would dispute that McDaniel is the clear choice of Republicans in [Mississippi],” Tea Party Patriots President Jenny Beth Martin told Breitbart’s Matt Boyle. “He is, by all rights, the Republican nominee, regardless of what state law states.”

This was a slight departure from the standard Tea Party Patriots pitch of “reaching out to Democrats and independents.” But the sentiment was real. In the runup to the primary, an overzealous McDaniel supporter named Clayton Kelly was arrested on suspicion of photographing Cochran’s bedridden wife. Three other activists, including Tea Party leader Mark Mayfield, were arrested in short succession. Mayfield was found dead on Friday, the victim of an apparent suicide. On July 1, Grant Sowell and other leaders attended Mayfield’s funeral. These aren’t people inclined to back down from a legal challenge.

They are inclined to believe the worst about Cochran’s campaign. Charles C. Johnson, a freelance journalist with a record that includes some duds and more scoops, has taken a leading role in the fight back. It was Johnson, on Election Day, who recorded a robocall asking black voters to oppose the “Tea Party” candidate and tweeted a photo of what appeared to be a flier about how “the Tea Party intends to prevent blacks from voting.” This accusation has been on McDaniel supporters’ minds—this attack on them as hooded ghosts from the Jim Crow era—as they have been looking through the poll books.

While Cochran supporters watch in disbelief, Johnson’s reporting is bringing more conservatives into the legal fight. On June 30, Johnson posted an audio interview with the Rev. Stevie Fielder, who claimed that a Cochran staffer had paid him to bribe black voters with envelopes containing $15. The story came with photos of Fielder holding up what appeared to be email exchanges with a staffer; it also came with the disclosure that Fielder had been paid to talk.

Cochran’s campaign denied everything and explained that Johnson—who was unreliable, and a blogger, by the way—got it wrong. “We hire a lot of people, black, white, young, old, to help with get out the vote efforts,” spokesman Jordan Russell told the Jackson Clarion-Ledger. “Whether you’re a high school kid in Northeast Jackson or a retired nurse in Greenwood, if you’re out working doors for us, you get paid in cash, in an envelope.”

But that answer came hours after the Fielder tape had burned up social media. By the time Russell responded, FreedomWorks—which had made no previous moves to support the legal challenge—issued a statement calling for prosecutors to get involved. “This is a federal crime and requires swift action by the Department of Justice and the FBI,” said the group’s national political director, Russ Walker. “The faith the American people have in the electoral process is critical to the success of our representative democracy. These are serious allegations that, if true, undermine the integrity of our electoral process.”

Meanwhile, the McDaniel campaign was claiming 1,500 sketchy votes in Hinds County—almost double what the Tea Party had claimed. “We don’t have to prove that we have 7,000 [invalid] votes,” spokesman Neil Fritsch told Fox News. “All there needs to be is enough doubt about the election, and we’re confident about that.”

There’s no Plan C. There’s no recent precedent for a challenge like this. For the moment, there are just the poll books, and the rumors, and the trading of insults.

“People [are] saying, ‘I hate that I voted for Thad,’ ” said Grant Sowell. “The Tea Parties in Mississippi are growing like never before. I’ve had people apologizing to people for not being more involved. They feel like what’s going on is not just unethical but ungodly.”