Geoff Pender, Clarion Ledger, August 12, 2014
Chris McDaniel says conservatives in Mississippi are “enraged” over the U.S. Senate primary and likely to take it out on incumbent Republican state officeholders in next year’s elections.
“Conservatives in this state are angry, and rightly so,” McDaniel said Tuesday, in his first one-on-one interview with The Clarion-Ledger since before his June 24 runoff loss to incumbent Sen. Thad Cochran.
“Those three weeks up to the runoff, they saw the despicable and improper things,” McDaniel said. “They are going to take that anger and try to turn it into something in 2015. Who knows where those energies will flow. I just know a lot of people are going to engage the system, and I think that’s a good thing for the system.”
McDaniel touched on numerous topics in the phone interview as he traveled to meet with his attorneys about a legal challenge to his runoff loss, which McDaniel said he will likely file Wednesday.
McDaniel says his legal team has told him he has a “rock-solid” case to overturn the primary, and he’s been letting that team do its work.
“I have stepped back,” McDaniel said, and resisted a natural urge as a lawyer who’s practiced for 14 years to be involved in drafting the challenge. “One thing I never wanted to do was be my own lawyer. I don’t want to let passion or strong emotion cloud anything. I’ve just asked them only one question: Do we have a rock-solid, actionable case? They’ve told me yes. … I paid them to give me good, solid legal advice, and that’s exactly what they’re doing.”
McDaniel said he knows that, even with a solid case, overturning a statewide election is a massive challenge and would be unprecedented.
McDaniel said that as his lawyers worked, he’s been recharging his batteries, spending time with wife and two young sons, including a trip last week to Disney World. He said he’s also gone back to work at his law firm and taken continuing legal education courses he’s required to have as an attorney.
Hopes for reform
McDaniel said he’s not being a sore loser, that “the integrity of the primary system matters” and that when that integrity is usurped, people’s constitutional “freedom of association” is thwarted.
“This cannot happen again,” McDaniel said, and that he hopes his case brings election reform.
McDaniel said he knows people have voiced concern and frustration about his pending challenge hanging over the Senate election for seven weeks.
“I share their concern,” McDaniel said. “We would have much rather have this expedited. It took longer than we would have ever thought for the lawyers to gather evidence — they are still gathering evidence — with so many reports of wrongdoing. We have a limited number on our staff. I was hoping this thing would be wrapped up days ago.”
McDaniel said his meeting with lawyers Tuesday was to decide what county to file it in and wrap up loose ends — “first, venue, and second, to ask one more time, ‘Do we have enough effective evidence?'”
Will of the court
McDaniel has been asked repeatedly whether he would support Cochran as the Republican nominee if his challenge fails. He said Tuesday he still cannot answer that.
“I’m focused on the objective ahead, and I can’t get too far out ahead of that,” McDaniel said.
McDaniel acknowledged, “Once we exhaust our legal remedies, there would be little choice but to accept the will of the court at that point.”
McDaniel said he’d like to note for the record and to refute columns in The Clarion-Ledger and elsewhere that “we weren’t just trying to raise money” with his challenge and requests for donations for it.
He noted his campaign still had nearly $400,000 in the bank after the runoff. But he said “people have been very generous” in donating to fund the challenge.
McDaniel said he hasn’t paid close attention to recent allegations swirling around part of his challenge — claims by Stevie Fielder of Meridian that he helped the Cochran campaign buy votes.
Fielder has recanted some of the story he initially told California political blogger Charles C. Johnson, saying now that he was asked to buy votes but didn’t. And state Attorney General Jim Hood said his office determined Fielder was paid to lie by McDaniel campaign staffer Noel Fritsch.
McDaniel said, “I think Charles Johnson already made very clear, he was the one who (paid Fielder). … (Fritsch) denies anything to that effect.”
McDaniel said he welcomes an investigation into the matter.
“That’s a good thing,” McDaniel said. “I hope as they begin to subpoena documents between Rev. Fielder and others, they’ll get to the bottom of this. I’m glad we’re seeing the wheels of justice move and subpoenas are out there.”
While McDaniel said he was going to grill his lawyers one more time Tuesday on the case they’ve gathered, he said he’s pretty confident it’s a strong one, even with a steep legal hill to climb.
“The law is the law, and we think the law is on our side,” McDaniel said. “Facts are the facts, and when you look at the aggregate numbers of votes in question, when you add up the large numbers of Democrats, the numbers get very high at that point.”
The state senator from Ellisville briefly reflected on his long-fought first run at higher office and a statewide election Tuesday.
“This has been an incredible experience.”