Miss. Primary Saga Rolls On, As McDaniel Refuses To Back Down

Six weeks after the Mississippi GOP Senate primary, controversy still swirls around the outcome, as defeated challenger Chris McDaniel continues to dispute the election's results.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Mississippi's Republican Senate runoff was decided three weeks ago, but the loser in that race refuses to accept the results. Longtime Sen. Thad Cochran is the certified winner, but his tea party-backed challenger, Chris McDaniel, alleges there might have been thousands of improper votes cast and today another twist. NPR political editor Charlie Mahtesian joins us now to talk about that twist. And Charlie, State Sen. Chris McDonnell's campaign held a much anticipated press conference today. But what actually happened?

CHARLIE MAHTESIAN, BYLINE: Well, the expectation was that there would be an announcement, one way or another, as to whether McDaniel would file a former challenge to his runoff lost. But it turns out the news conference didn't have all that much news. In fact, McDaniel didn't even turn up there himself. Instead, his lawyers and allies appeared and simply said that they weren't ready to announce anything in terms of filing a challenge, though they might file one within 10 days. So basically what happened was they reiterated what everyone in Mississippi already knew. The McDaniel campaign believes it has evidence showing widespread voting irregularities and voting fraud.

CORNISH: We're talking about a Deep South red state, Mississippi, here. I mean, what difference does it make sense of what Republican is going to be appearing in November, right? It will still be held by Republican.

MAHTESIAN: Well, yes. In a typical election year, we wouldn't even be having this kind of conversation, because Mississippi, as you know, is one of the most conservative states in the nation. But there's fresh polling out there that suggests this fight has taken a toll both on Sen. Cochran and also McDaniel because there are still lots of hard feelings on both sides, particularly among those who backed State Sen. Chris McDaniel. But even so, assuming Cochran remains the nominee, he's still going to be a heavy favorite in the fall, even if all the wounds from this primary haven't healed by then.

CORNISH: And then there are many more Senate primaries still to be decided. Are any of them as contentious as this one - any that we should be keeping an eye on?

MAHTESIAN: Well, the most bruising primaries and the ones that drew the most national attention and the ones where Republican incumbents were in the most danger - they're all largely over by now. But there are still a handful of pretty fascinated Senate primaries to watch in August. Two of them are on the Republican side, where we'll see the familiar tea party vs. establishment divide - in challenges to Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts and also in Tennessee to Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander. Now, on the Democratic side, there's also one fascinating primary. And that's this barn burner of a primary in Hawaii, where appointed Sen. Brian Schatz is being challenged by Con. Colleen Hanabusa in a race that's actually less about ideology than it is about the quirks of Hawaii politics.

CORNISH: Now, we're a little over three months away from midterm elections and the biggest question of this term seems to be, do Democrats need to be nervous about the state of their Senate majority?

MAHTESIAN: Well, the simple answer is yes. They definitely need to be worried. It's a really tough year for Democrats for a number of reasons. Historically, midterm elections and a president six years in office are very tough on the party that holds control of the White House. In fact, the phenomenon even has a name. It's called the six-year itch. And on top of that, Senate Democrats are defending twice as many seats this year as Democrats. And they're doing it with a president whose popularity is close to his all-time low since he's been in office. And above all that, the magic number now for Republicans is six and that's the number of seats they need to pick up in November to win back control of the Senate. At the moment, there are enough competitive races out there to get them close or over the bar. So the post-Labor Day campaign season looks like it's going to be a nail biter, filled with all kinds of races that are within the margin of error and enough to keep partisans on both sides pretty nervous.

CORNISH: That's NPR political editor Charlie Mahtesian. Charlie, thank you.

MAHTESIAN: Thank you, Audie.

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