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Miss. Supreme Court hears dispute as losing candidate tries to upend Cochran's GOP primary win

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JACKSON, Mississippi — Attorneys for six-term Sen. Thad Cochran told the Mississippi Supreme Court on Thursday that a challenger waited too long to file a lawsuit seeking to overturn Cochran's victory in the June 24 Republican primary runoff.

However, attorneys for the challenger, tea party-backed state Sen. Chris McDaniel, argued that current Mississippi law does not specify a deadline for filing a challenge of election results. McDaniel is asking justices to revive his lawsuit that was dismissed in late August. The circuit judge who dismissed the suit agreed with Cochran's attorneys that McDaniel waited too long to file.

Justices spent nearly two hours listening to arguments and asking questions of both sides. They gave no indication of when or how they might rule.

Cochran and McDaniel were not in court Thursday.

If justices side with McDaniel, the lawsuit could go to trial and he could try to prove his claim that the runoff was tainted by irregularities such as people voting in the June 3 Democratic primary and then crossing over to vote in the June 24 Republican runoff. Mississippi does not register voters by party, but it bans people from voting in one party's primary and the other party's runoff in the same election cycle.

Cochran's camp says the former Senate Appropriations Committee chairman won the runoff fairly by reminding voters of his record in Washington.

Certified results show Cochran defeated McDaniel by 7,667 votes. That victory came three weeks after McDaniel led a three-person primary.

State elections officials already have set a Nov. 4 general election ballot that lists Cochran as the Republican nominee, former U.S. Rep. Travis Childers as the Democratic nominee and Shawn O'Hara as the Reform Party candidate.

PHOTO: Mitch Tyner, standing left, an attorney for tea party-supported candidate state Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Ellisville, asks the Mississippi Supreme Court, Thursday, Oct. 2, 2014, in Jackson, Miss., to reinstate a lawsuit a circuit judge dismissed in August, that challenges McDaniel's Republican primary loss to six-term U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran.  (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Mitch Tyner, standing left, an attorney for tea party-supported candidate state Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Ellisville, asks the Mississippi Supreme Court, Thursday, Oct. 2, 2014, in Jackson, Miss., to reinstate a lawsuit a circuit judge dismissed in August, that challenges McDaniel's Republican primary loss to six-term U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Cochran attorney Phil Abernethy on Thursday made the same argument he did weeks ago in circuit court — that McDaniel's challenge, which was filed 41 days after the runoff, came too late. Abernethy cited a 1959 Mississippi Supreme Court ruling that a candidate must challenge election results within 20 days. He said although election laws have been updated since then, legislators did not specifically undo the precedent set by the 1959 ruling.

"The Legislature, if they thought you got it wrong, had 55 years to come back and change that," Abernethy told justices.

McDaniel attorney Mitch Tyner said Thursday that state law was substantially rewritten in 1986 and doesn't set a timeline for challenging results of a multi-county primary.

"It is clear. There is no deadline," Tyner said.

Justice Ann Lamar asked Tyner if a candidate could challenge results of a primary 90 days, six months or a year later.

"He can't just wait around 60 days, 90 days. That would be crazy," Tyner said. "His number one goal is to get his name on the ballot."

Justice Jim Kitchens asked Tyner if the general election would be the cutoff date for challenging results of a primary.

"I don't know what the cutoff would be," Tyner said.

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Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus .

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PHOTO: Mitch Tyner, an attorney for tea party-supported candidate state Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Ellisville, asks the Mississippi Supreme Court, Thursday, Oct. 2, 2014, in Jackson, Miss., to reinstate a lawsuit a circuit judge dismissed in August, that challenges McDaniel's Republican primary loss to six-term U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran.  (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
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