This year’s most hotly contested Republican primary elections entered a new round of controversy Thursday morning, when the Tea Party challenger attempting to unseat incumbent Senator Thad Cochran officially initiated a challenge to the results of a runoff last week.
Insurgent candidate Chris McDaniel Thursday sent a “Notice of Intent to Challenge” to the Cochran campaign, the first step in an attempt to invalidate the election by revealing voting irregularities. Early next week the McDaniel campaign will file its official challenge with the state Republican Party, which oversees the primary election, McDaniel spokesman Noel Fritsch told TIME. A legal challenge in the courts will follow, Fritsch says.
“Most important in this challenge is the integrity of the election process. That’s what this is really all about,” Fritsch said. “What you have here are multiple criminal allegations, criminal misconduct."
Cochran won a runoff against his more conservative challenger by about 6,700 votes, in part by appealing to moderates and Democrats, who were legally allowed to vote in the Republican runoff in Mississippi if they did not vote in the June 3 Democratic primary. McDaniel alleges that a significant number of Cochran votes came from Democrats who had violated that rule.
The McDaniel campaign has thus far found more than 4,900 votes it calls into question, Fritsch says. The campaign has not yet received access to records in 31 counties or to 19,000 absentee ballots, Fritsch says.
A Cochran campaign spokesman, Jordan Russell, told TIME he could not confirm the campaign had received the notice from McDaniel but called the challenge “baseless.”
“It’s not going anywhere. There’s no evidence of any wrongdoing,” Russell told TIME. “Frankly, it’s a publicity stunt, an attempt to help him to retire his campaign debt.”
Conservative activists were outraged by Cochran’s narrow victory, won with the support of Democrats after McDaniel bested the long-time Senator in the June 3 primary (neither man won more than 50% of the vote, automatically triggering the runoff). Some in conservative circles have called for McDaniel, a firebrand State Senator and former conservative radio host, to mount a write-in campaign, which may not be legally feasible under Mississippi law. A write-in effort would be good news for Democrat Travis Childers, a former congressman from Mississippi who under normal circumstances would face extremely long odds against a Republican in the deeply conservative state.
“We’ve got thousands and thousands of people telling us to do that” Fritsch said when asked if McDaniel would consider a write-in effort. “Oh no. We’re not taking any actions off the table right now.”
-With reporting from Zeke Miller