Conservatives may be disappointed that tea party favorite Chris McDaniel fell short in his bid to unseat Sen. Thad Cochran in Mississippi's Republican primary runoff. But for some, there’s a consolation prize: A high-profile exhibit to add to their case that voter fraud and illegal voting is a major threat to elections.
To be clear, no evidence has emerged that Cochran’s win, which appears to have been achieved by courting black Democrats, was anything other than perfectly legal. But that’s not how some furious McDaniel supporters—egged on by the candidate himself—see it.
"When an election is questionable, with potential legal violations, politics MUST be put aside and the irregularities MUST be fully investigated," Sarah Palin told her millions of Facebook fans. "The integrity of the vote speaks directly to the integrity of those who serve and the trust we ask the American public to put in our institutions."
Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association, a prominent social conservative, was more direct. “If Democrats broke the law when they voted for Cochran, that's voter fraud and this is in fact a stolen election,” Fischer tweeted.
The conservative writer Daxton Brown referred in a tweet to the “Cochran voter fraud.”
The claims of a stolen election aren’t likely to reverse the results. But, in some corners of the right, they seem destined to add fuel to the sense of paranoia and alarm that drives much of the misplaced concern over illegal voting—perhaps for years to come.
For all their concern over voter fraud, conservatives have struggled to point to high-profile elections that were determined by illegal votes. Some point to Al Franken’s narrow 2008 Senate win over Norm Coleman in Minnesota, alleging it was achieved with support from felons, who are barred from voting. Others cite Harry Reid’s 2010 victory over Sharron Angle in Nevada, claiming, without evidence, that labor unions messed with voting machines to boost the Democrat’s vote totals. Now, the Cochran win looks likely to be added to the list, as a way for the right not just to stoke anger but to justify further restrictions on voting.
Behind this week’s claims is a confusing Mississippi law—and an effort by conservative supporters of voting restrictions to exploit it. The law bars anyone from voting in a party primary if they don’t plan to support the party’s nominee in the general election. The measure is unenforceable in practice, and as it has been interpreted by the courts, it applies only to people who openly declare their intentions before voting. Mississippi’s attorney general restated that interpretation Monday.
But Christian Adams, a former Justice Department lawyer during the Bush administration, insisted ahead of Tuesday’s vote that the law raised the threat of widespread illegal voting by Democrats. Adams joined with a bevy of national conservative groups to organize a campaign to monitor polls on Election Day. That effort doesn’t appear to have had much impact, after both state and federal officials expressed concern over it. But it succeeded in laying the groundwork for a feeling among tea partiers and McDaniel backers that they were cheated.
McDaniel has stoked that feeling. He said Wednesday night in a radio interview that his campaign knew that some of the Democrats who turned out Tuesday had already voted in the Democratic primary—which would be against the rules. He did not cite evidence for that claim.
But McDaniel also made clear he subscribed to Adams's restrictive interpretation of the law. "We likewise know that we have a statute, a law in our state that says you cannot participate in a primary unless you intend to support that candidate," McDaniel said. "And we know good and well that these 35,000 Democrats have no intention to do that. They’ll be voting for [Democratic nominee] Travis Childers in November. We know that. They know that. And so that makes their actions illegal."
Adams, too, has said he’s reviewing the election data in advance of a potential challenge. Any legal challenge would be an extreme long-shot, election law experts say.
Adding to the incendiary mix is the fact that Mississippi has the most racially polarized voting in the nation. That means that to some ears, concern about voting by Democrats sound an awful lot like concern about voting by blacks, especially given the state’s apartheid history.
A pro-Cochran flier said to have been distributed in black neighborhoods before the election was headlined: “The Tea Party intends to prevent blacks from voting on Tuesday.”
The flier was posted at National Review by the conservative writer John Fund, who has led the charge in hyping voter fraud, under the headline: "The Flier that got Thad Cochran Elected?" Fund’s implication, it appeared, was that boosting turnout by raising concerns over ballot access for black Mississippians was another way in which Cochran’s win was underhanded.
Not all conservatives have bought into the claim that Cochran’s win was fraudulent. “As much as I support Chris McDaniel, a conservative should not insist the law should not be applied. It was an open primary,” tweeted RedState’s Erick Erickson.
John Feehery, a Washington lobbyist and former top Republican congressional aide, went further. “So, somehow getting African-Americans to vote for a Republican in Mississippi is now seen as a bad thing by the tea party. I wonder if they know how extraordinarily racist and stupid that sounds,” Feehery wrote on Facebook.
There’s an irony here, too. If anyone could conceivably be charged with having broken the rules—which they couldn't—it’s McDaniel supporters. On Tuesday night, some openly declared their intention not to support Cochran in the general election, chanting “Write Chris In!,” and “We’re not going with Thad,” Politico reported.