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Cochran wins Mississippi GOP primary runoff

The epically bizarre primary contest between GOP Senator Thad Cochran and tea party challenger Chris McDaniel reached its thrilling conclusion Tuesday night.
A young supporter of U.S. Sen Thad Cochran (R-MS) waves American flags during a campaign rally on June 23, 2014 in Jackson, Mississippi.
A young supporter of U.S. Sen Thad Cochran (R-MS) waves American flags during a campaign rally on June 23, 2014 in Jackson, Mississippi.

Incumbent Mississippi Senator Thad Cochran bested tea party challenger Chris McDaniel in the state's GOP runoff, ending an epically bizarre primary contest that began after McDaniel narrowly won the first round of voting in the weirdest, nastiest must-watch campaign of 2014.

Three weeks later, its title stands. In recent days, McDaniel's campaign sparred with the senator’s daughter, Kate Cochran, over a Facebook post in which she said McDaniel “relies solely on Jesus, the Constitution, and common sense* -- combined in the veneer of ‘goodness’” to determine his politics, mocking her complaints with a Twitter hashtag “#Who’sYaDaddy?”

Earlier this week, a county district attorney finished an investigation into how a McDaniel staffer and two supporters locked themselves in a courthouse where ballots were held on election night, concluding no crime was committed. On Monday, the Cochran campaign fired a staffer after they were arrested for allegedly stealing yard signs for McDaniel.

Still, all of these episodes pale in comparison to the campaign’s wild May, which saw four McDaniel supporters charged in an alleged conspiracy to break into a nursing home to film Cochran’s sick wife for an attack video.

McDaniel ran promising a more aggressive and ideologically pure war against the Democratic agenda. Cochran argued that his seniority has helped Mississippi secure critical federal dollars and that McDaniel is an extremist who would embarrass the state in Washington.

As the first round of voting made clear, Cochran was on his heels with Republican voters. A poll on Monday by Democratic firm Chism Strategies found McDaniel leading Cochran by eight points among GOP primary voters. To close the gap, Cochran and his allies invited Democrats and especially African-Americans to vote for him over McDaniel, who was accused of inflaming racial tensions in public statements and appearances.

A coalition of tea party groups, led by the Senate Conservatives Fund, tried to counter this crossover appeal by posting election observers at polling stations to watch for attempts by Democrats to influence the GOP race that they claim could be illegal.

“The Cochran campaign and its Establishment allies are now on notice: You and your Democrat-operative hired guns will not succeed in breaking the law to steal this election,” Jenny Beth Martin, chairman of the participating Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund, said in a statement. 

While it’s not uncommon for campaigns to dispatch supporters to look out for irregularities, the racial politics of Mississippi and vagueness of the state’s election laws make for a delicate situation.

Mississippi allows Democrats to vote in Republican primaries so long as they didn’t vote in their own party’s primary already. But tea party groups also invoked a statute that forbids voters from choosing a candidate that they do not intend to support in the general election.

Absent a mind-reader, fortune-teller, or the abolition of secret ballots, there’s little way to enforce this provision. Voters are under no obligation to advertise their plans for November. This raises the uncomfortable prospect of McDaniel backers searching for signs voters are Democratic saboteurs in a state with the most racially polarized electorate in America today -- 96% of black voters supported President Obama in 2012 and 90% of the white voters opposed him, per exit polls -- and a tortured civil rights history. Some experts are worried overzealous McDaniel supporters could intimidate voters and Department of Justice spokesperson told msnbc federal officials were watching the situation.

J. Christian Adams, a former Justice Department attorney and conservative activist leading the pro-McDaniel poll monitoring effort, said in an interview with msnbc that election monitors had been told only to watch polling sites for questionable activity and would not challenge individual voters. 

"There's vast amounts of training that make it very clear that the observers are there to observe -- they're not there to do anything else," Adams said.

As for how they would find violators, Adams said his team would be on the lookout for Democrats who publicly announce their intention to back their own party's nominee before voting in the primary. He and tea party groups have suggested that a pro-Childers Democratic operative, James "Scooby Doo" Warren, working for a pro-Cochran super PAC to turn out Democratic voters may be skirting the law. Adams declined to name how many observers they planned to post, but said they would be distributed throughout the state. 

Leading tea party organizations threw their full support behind McDaniel, whose win is much-needed after tough Senate primary losses in Kentucky and North Carolina. While David Brat’s surprise victory over Eric Cantor provided the movement with a morale boost this month, he won with virtually no support from the conservative groups backing McDaniel this week. Groups like the Tea Party Patriots could have used a McDaniel win to fend off accusations that they overpay top officials for weak results.

On the other side, establishment Republicans rallied behind Cochran, whose race they see as an important battle in a larger war to reassert control over the party.