Ted Cruz speaks out as Mississippi's Republican civil war spreads

The Mississippi Republican primary between Sen. Thad Cochran and tea party-backed Chris McDaniel has been ugly and could get worse. Ted Cruz is jumping in, and McDaniel is moving toward a legal challenge.

Joe Ellis/The Clarion-Ledger/AP
Mitch Tyner, an attorney representing Senate candidate Chris McDaniel, tells reporters outside the Hinds County Courthouse in Jackson, Miss., Monday that the McDaniel camp is confident it can overturn the result of the June 24 Republican runoff against Sen. Thad Cochran.

Sen. Ted Cruz has jumped into Mississippi’s political drama, a sign that the deepening dispute over the state’s Republican Senate primary runoff is seeping into the national GOP.

In a radio interview Monday, the conservative Texas Republican positioned himself firmly on the side of Chris McDaniel, the Mississippi state senator who lost to Sen. Thad Cochran on June 24. The tea party-backed Mr. McDaniel claims Senator Cochran “stole” the election by reaching out to Democratic voters, many of them black, who then voted “illegally” in the June 24 runoff.

“These allegations need to be vigorously investigated, and anyone involved in criminal conduct should be prosecuted,” Senator Cruz said on the “Mark Levin Show.” “The voters of Mississippi deserve to know the truth.”

Cruz also slammed “the conduct of the Washington D.C. machine” in the runoff.  

Cruz’s comments represented a sharp departure from his neutral posture in GOP primaries – in itself, an unusual approach to his duties as vice chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. The committee works to reelect incumbent GOP senators.

Cruz’s comments Monday came as the state Republican Party certified the results of the runoff, showing that Cochran beat McDaniel by 7,667 votes. That margin is about 1,000 more than the initial vote count on election night.

Also on Monday, the McDaniel campaign’s lawyer expressed confidence that the result of the runoff could be overturned in court. Mitch Tyner, speaking to reporters in the state capital of Jackson, said that canvassers for the McDaniel campaign were poring over the vote records in courthouses across the state and had found “several thousand ineligible voters.” He expected the canvass to be completed later this week, at which point the campaign would file a challenge with the state Republican Party. If that is rejected, as expected, the campaign will file for judicial review. In addition, last Tuesday, an outside group filed suit in federal court.

The Cochran campaign released preliminary results of its own vote canvass early Tuesday, showing a smattering of either “questioned” votes or “crossover” votes across the state – but nowhere near enough to change the result of the runoff.

Both the McDaniel campaign and the outside group, True the Vote, allege that unauthorized voters tipped the balance for Cochran in the runoff. In the state’s open primary system, any Mississippi voter may cast a ballot in a Republican runoff, as long as he or she did not vote in the immediately preceding Democratic primary.

In the Republican primary, held June 3, McDaniel topped Cochran by about 1,300 votes, but did not win a majority, sending the race into a runoff.  

That’s when Team Cochran sprang into action, devising a plan to expand the electorate. The campaign and a key pro-Cochran outside group devised an outreach program to Mississippi voters who might be persuaded to support the senator in the runoff. The campaign highlighted Cochran’s ability to steer federal money to his home state for education, defense, and agriculture.

Many of those new Cochran voters were black. This raised questions over whether they were eligible to vote, as the vast majority of Mississippi African-Americans are Democrats and might have voted in the Democratic primary.

But the Cochran campaign warns not to assume that all the new voters in the runoff in fact voted for Cochran. Indeed, some Democrats might have voted for McDaniel, on the idea that he would be easier to beat in the general election than Cochran. National Democrats rooted for McDaniel to win the runoff, giving the Democratic nominee, former Rep. Travis Childers, a chance in November.

Cochran was seen as a safe bet for November. But the bitter dispute over the runoff has injected doubt there as well. McDaniel’s most fervent supporters are now saying they will not support Cochran in the general election, and if that attitude spreads widely among the rank and file of McDaniel voters, Cochran could be in trouble.

In a Facebook post, state Sen. Melanie Sojourner (R), McDaniel’s campaign manager, vowed never to endorse Cochran and accused his campaign of “race baiting.”

A Mississippi tea party leader, Grant Sowell of Tupelo, said he too could never support Cochran in November.

“There have been clear instances of fraud, there have been clear instances of what appears to be buying votes,” says Mr. Sowell in an interview. “This goes beyond Chris McDaniel or Thad Cochran or even the Senate race. This has the concern of Mississippians, when it comes to the integrity of our elections going forward. If we don’t correct it now, we may never get it back.”

Sowell says he’s spoken to hundreds of people since the runoff, and “I’ve not talked to one person who is supporting Chris McDaniel who will vote for Thad under any circumstance.”

Top Cochran adviser Stuart Stevens – a nationally known Republican strategist – added fuel to the flames Monday in a column in the Daily Beast, warning that McDaniel’s anger could backfire.

“Maybe I’m old school, but I still believe conservatism’s goal should be to serve as a serious, grounded governing philosophy. It certainly was that during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, a man Chris McDaniel holds out to be his hero,” wrote Mr. Stevens, a native of Mississippi.

“But if that conservative ideal of governance is nudged aside and replaced by something that’s just a rallying cry for angry lost causes, it’s hard to imagine how the left won’t win.”

For now, the right is immersing itself ever deeper into the McDaniel cause. And not just verbally, as with Cruz. The Washington-based Senate Conservatives Fund, a super political action committee, is raising funds to support McDaniel’s legal challenge. Other out-of-state tea party support groups are supporting McDaniel’s effort. And the civil war in Mississippi’s Republican Party rages on, with no end in sight.

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