WASHINGTON — The long and bitter Republican primary fight between Sen. Thad Cochran and his Tea Party challenger descended into accusations and countercharges over voter fraud Friday, with the defeated candidate, state Sen. Chris McDaniel, making clear that he would not accept the results anytime soon.
The escalating feud raised the prospect that a seething bloc of conservative voters could sit out the November election, improving the chances of the long-shot Democratic candidate, Travis Childers.
A tragic note was introduced into the intraparty fight Friday, when a Tea Party leader committed suicide. The man, Mark Mayfield, had been accused of being part of a conspiracy to photograph Rose Cochran, Mr. Cochran’s wife, in the Mississippi nursing home where she lives. Mr. Mayfield, a lawyer and a leader of the Central Mississippi Tea Party, had been arrested last month and charged with conspiring to break into the room of Ms. Cochran, who has dementia.
“This is an election, but an election shouldn’t cost a life,” said Grant Sowell, a leader of the Tupelo Tea Party, who was informed of the suicide Friday morning.
Mr. Mayfield’s lawyer, Merrida Coxwell, said his client had faced little chance of being convicted, let alone of being sentenced to jail. But the arrest “was more than he could stand,” he said. “Sadly, Mark may have taken his own life, but that lies at the feet of some other people,” Mr. Coxwell said. “They will have to explain that.”
Mr. Mayfield’s suicide added to the drama in the race between Mr. Cochran, a courtly six-term incumbent, and Mr. McDaniel, a firebrand Tea Party favorite, which appeared to have ended Tuesday with Mr. Cochran’s narrow runoff victory.
Feelings ran unusually high during the primary and runoff campaigns, which were marked by incidents unusual by any political standards. Besides the nursing home break-in, there was the strange phone call to police in the early-morning hours after the June 3 primary from McDaniel aides and supporters who had locked themselves in the Hinds County Courthouse in Jackson, the state capital, which is a Cochran stronghold.
Mr. McDaniel and his supporters are exploring legal options to contest Mr. Cochran’s victory, zeroing in on the Cochran campaign’s efforts to bring blacks and other Democratic voters to the polls Tuesday.
The McDaniel camp charged that a partial review of the tallies in Hinds County had turned up nearly 1,000 ballots that were cast by voters who participated in the Democratic primary June 3 and were ineligible under state law to vote in the Republican runoff. McDaniel aides said supporters were reviewing ballots across the state, although they have met resistance in about half of the counties they have approached.
Pete Perry, the Hinds County Republican Party chairman, said the McDaniel campaign’s claims were “wildly exaggerated.” In the Jackson precinct at Fondren Presbyterian Church, he said, the McDaniel campaign charged that 192 illegal votes had been cast by people who voted in the Democratic primary. But, he said, only 37 Democrats voted there June 3.
“Instead of making wild accusations which stir up social media with cries of fraud and corruption, it would be much better for all involved — the voters, the candidates, the 500 poll workers in Hinds County — if we let facts enter into the conversation,” Mr. Perry said.
An aide said the search for irregularities would continue until Mr. McDaniel had the facts to decide whether to contest the results in court. Mississippi law does not allow for a recount, but a judge could order a new vote. And one of the outside conservative groups that bankrolled Mr. McDaniel’s campaign, the Madison Project, said it was standing by the candidate. “Dirty political tricks are one thing, but if irregular and illegal voting events took place, that is a completely separate matter, and the people of Mississippi deserve straight answers,” the group’s leader, Drew Ryun, said Friday.
The chances of a new election are remote.
National Democratic officials had hoped that Mr. McDaniel would triumph Tuesday, believing that Mr. Childers, a former House member from Northeast Mississippi, could beat such an incendiary candidate. But Mr. Childers said the bitterness of the fight could play even more to his advantage.
Mr. Mayfield’s suicide adds another wrinkle. Charles C. Johnson, a conservative writer in Los Angeles, took to Twitter, saying, “Let’s be honest here: The NRSC’s operatives killed Mayfield with lies about his character,” a reference to the National Republican Senatorial Committee. The committee ardently supported Mr. Cochran.
Friends say Mr. Mayfield sank into depression after his arrest. “Here’s a guy who has a great life, is well respected and liked by everybody, and all of the sudden, his life changed dramatically,” Mr. Sowell, the Tupelo Tea Party leader, said. “Everyone assumed he was guilty.”United States - North America - Mississippi - Jackson - Thad Cochran - Travis Childers