Republican Senator Thad Cochran won his primary against tea party challenger Chris McDaniel in Mississippi last month, but the fight continues in the media and the courts as McDaniel claims the contest was tainted by voter fraud. Things escalated further in a press conference call Wednesday, when a McDaniel supporter suggested Cochran had won by "harvesting black voters like black people harvesting cotton."
Earlier Wednesday, in a fundraising email, McDaniel said, “Thanks to illegal voting from liberal Democrats, my opponent stole last week’s runoff election, but I’m not going down without a fight,"
He called the election “a sham, plain and simple,” citing “thousands of irregularities in the voting process.”
A top adviser to Cochran, Austin Barbour, held a press conference on Wednesday afternoon calling on McDaniel to "put up or shut up" by either coming forward with verifiable evidence of fraud or conceding defeat.
"If they have hard evidence, put it forward," Barbour said, according to the New York Times' Jonathan Weisman.
One unidentified man asked Barbour about "Cochran harvesting black votes like black people harvesting cotton," according to The Daily Beast's Ben Jacobs. The phone line remained open after the call ended, where apparent McDaniel supporters speculated whether the bizarre "cotton" question came from a Cochran plant "or maybe Obama" in order to make them look like extremists.
The bitter dispute threatens to further divide the Mississippi GOP, as well as national tea party activists and establishment Republicans, heading into the November election. While Cochran is the heavy favorite to win the general election against Democratic nominee Travis Childers, Democrats think there's an outside chance the race could become competitive if McDaniel supporters refuse to support the incumbent.
McDaniel supporters have thrown the kitchen sink at the results, contesting them from a number of different angles. Cochran won with a last minute appeal to Democrats, who are allowed to vote in Republican primaries. McDaniel supporters have sued the Mississippi Secretary of State and Mississippi GOP to inspect election records in order to check that voters did not participate in both the Democratic primary and the Republican primary, which is illegal. But they’ve also cited a seemingly unenforceable statute that bars voters from supporting primary candidates they don’t intend to vote for in November to argue many Democratic votes are illegitimate out of hand.
The most explosive fight this week has been over allegations by a pro-McDaniel blogger, Chuck C. Johnson, that the Cochran campaign paid black voters to support him. Johnson cited an interview with Steve Fielder, a minister in Lauderdale County, who said he was promised $16,000 by a Cochran staffer to offer black voters $15 to support the Senator in the primary. Ironically, Johnson paid Fielder for the information, who complained the Cochran campaign never came through with the promised cash.
A spokesman for the Cochran campaign, Jordan Russell, told the Clarion Ledger the claims were "baseless and false” and that Fielder had not been paid a promised $600 for failing to do promised work on get-out-the-vote efforts. Russell said they paid volunteers to knock on doors, not to vote in the primary. He noted that Johnson doesn’t have the most sterling reputation himself: he put up an offer on Twitter of $1,000 for pictures of Cochran’s ailing wife Rose after four McDaniel supporters were indicted in an alleged plot to film her in a nursing home for an attack video. One of the four, tea party activist Mark Mayfield, later died of a gunshot wound in an apparent suicide.