JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi's Republican Party on Wednesday refused to hear challenger Chris McDaniel's effort to overturn his June 24 GOP runoff loss to U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran. The party said McDaniel would do better taking his challenge to court.
In a letter to McDaniel's lawyer, state Republican Party Chairman Joe Nosef wrote that a court is needed to "protect the rights of the voters as well as both candidates."
Nosef wrote that under state Republican Party bylaws, seven days' notice has to be given before the executive committee can meet. If the notice went out Wednesday, he wrote, the committee couldn't convene until Aug. 13, only one day before the deadline for McDaniel to file his complaint with a court.
Nosef wrote that the committee would have to determine procedures, decide whether McDaniel had challenged in time, order investigations by county committees, hear "potentially dozens of witnesses," examine evidence and vote in one day.
"Obviously it is not possible for our committee of 52 volunteers to attempt to engage in such an exercise in a prudent manner in one day," Nosef wrote. "In fact, given the extraordinary relief requests of overturning a United States Senate primary in which over 360,000 Mississippians cast votes, the only way to ensure the integrity of the election process and provide a prudent review of this matter is in a court of law."
McDaniel, a state senator from Ellisville whose campaign was backed by the tea party, asked the party on Monday to declare him its nominee, saying Cochran's 7,667-vote victory in the runoff was due to Democratic voters who illegally cast runoff ballots for the six-term incumbent.
"Chris McDaniel is very disappointed he will not have the opportunity to present his election challenge before the state Executive Committee, especially in light of the fact that we delivered a physical copy of the challenge to all fifty-two members of the committee," McDaniel lawyer Mitch Tyner said in a statement. "The party was the perfect venue in which to hear the challenge since it was responsible for the election, but we will move forward with a judicial review as provided for under Mississippi code."
Tyner and a spokesman for McDaniel didn't respond to emails and telephone calls seeking further comment on McDaniel's next move.
Cochran spokesman Jordan Russell continued to downplay McDaniel's challenge.
"We were surprised by this decision, but whether Chris McDaniel's ridiculous challenge is heard by the State Executive Committee or a court, we are confident it will be rejected," Russell wrote in an email.
Nosef did not answer his cellphone or immediately respond to a text message requesting comment.
Referring the issue to court also allows members of the GOP's executive committee, many of whom have ties to Cochran, to avoid ruling on McDaniel's challenge. McDaniel supporters have criticized Nosef and even called for his resignation, saying he has favored Cochran despite his claim of neutrality.
McDaniel could file suit in any county where he feels illegal voting occurred. The state Supreme Court will then appoint a special judge to hear the challenge.
There's no deadline to challenge in Mississippi, but state law urges judges to decide primary challenges before general election ballots are printed. State law says sample ballots must be given to local election officials by Sept. 10, which is 55 days before the Nov. 4 general election. That squeezes the timeline for a lawsuit and a new primary runoff. State law says a court could order a new primary even after the general election. The Nov. 4 ballot will also include Democratic former U.S. Rep. Travis Childers and the Reform Party's Shawn O'Hara.
Any court challenge could lead to a lengthy trial, because McDaniel's claims cite multiple counties. While Mississippi courts have ordered some new local elections, no court has overturned or ordered a new statewide election in at least the past six decades, according to records reviewed by The Associated Press.