Judge throws out suit challenging GOP runoff vote


JACKSON – A Mississippi judge dismissed a lawsuit Friday that seeks to overturn six-term Sen. Thad Cochran’s victory in a Republican primary runoff, but the losing candidate in the prolonged election fight could still appeal the decision to the state Supreme Court.

Judge Hollis McGehee said state Sen. Chris McDaniel, who lost to Cochran in the June 24 runoff, failed to start an election challenge on time. McDaniel’s lawsuit claims irregularities spoiled the runoff, and it asks the judge to declare McDaniel the winner or order a new runoff.

“The court is faced with the undisputed facts that Sen. McDaniel filed his complaint with the state Republican executive committee 41 days after the date of the election,” McGehee said Friday as he announced his ruling from the bench in Gulfport.

“The law requires that it be done in 20 days,” McGehee said. “It’s not a question of whether I think that’s good law or whether I think it should be that way or not be that way. The question is, what is the law? And when you don’t meet that requirement, then you’re not entitled to come in the door of the courthouse, so to speak, with a lawsuit.”

McDaniel, a tea party-backed candidate, led a three-person primary June 3. But certified results show Cochran defeated McDaniel by 7,667 votes in the runoff three weeks later. Turnout jumped significantly for the runoff, including in predominantly African-American precincts where Cochran fared well. McDaniel has called the runoff a “sham” and criticized Cochran for appealing to voters who traditionally support Democrats.

McDaniel will hold a news conference Tuesday to announce whether he will appeal the ruling, attorney Mitch Tyner said.

“We feel very strongly that Judge McGehee got it wrong,” Tyner said after court Friday.

The judge’s ruling came one day after he held court in Laurel to hear arguments about the timeliness of McDaniel’s lawsuit. McGehee agreed with Cochran’s attorneys, who cited a 1959 Mississippi Supreme Court ruling that said an election challenge must begin within 20 days of the election.

McDaniel attorney Steve Thornton argued Thursday that Mississippi election laws have been rewritten since 1959, but Cochran attorney Phil Abernethy countered that the changes were not significant and that the Supreme Court precedent should still guide the judge in the current case.

Results of the runoff were certified July 7, and McDaniel started his challenge Aug. 4 with the state Republican Party. After the GOP executive committee said it didn’t have time to properly consider the challenge, McDaniel filed a lawsuit Aug. 14 in his home of Jones County. The state Supreme Court appointed McGehee, a retired judge from another county, to handle the case.

Cochran campaign strategist Austin Barbour praised the judge’s ruling.

“Hopefully, this ends the ordeal,” Barbour said Friday.

Before hearing the arguments about dismissing the case, McGehee last week had set the trial on the McDaniel lawsuit to begin Sept. 16 and end by Oct. 6. He said, however, that he would not block state officials from preparing for the Nov. 4 general election.

The state Board of Elections Commissioners met Tuesday and set the general election ballot with Cochran as the Republican nominee, former U.S. Rep. Travis Childers as the Democratic nominee and Shawn O’Hara as the Reform Party candidate.