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As vote-buying allegations are reeled back, Chris McDaniel is running out of options

Chris McDaniel (Jonathan Bachman/Reuters)

It's impossible to question Chris McDaniel's tenacity, pushing for a third election in the Mississippi Senate race despite having been clearly defeated in the runoff last month. But his campaign's push to have the courts force a new election due to alleged voter fraud — always a long shot regardless of evidence — are probably near collapse, as a key accuser rolls back his story.

Earlier this month, in a taped interview with a conservative blogger, a Mississippi man named Stevie Fielder accused the campaign of Sen. Thad Cochran of having handed him envelopes of cash intended to lure black voters to the polls. McDaniel backers jumped on the story as evidence of fraud.

We looked at those accusations after they emerged, finding a lot of reason to question the claims. Now, in an interview with the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, Fielder says, among other things, that his convoluted story referred only to a "hypothetical" situation. "What was said and what was recorded on that tape was not meant to show in any way that I took anyone to the polls and voted, nor did Mr. Cochran and them ask me to do that, not (campaign manager) Kirk (Sims) or any of his other people … in the upper echelon (of the campaign)," he told the paper.

It's possible that Fielder is simply trying to keep from being arrested for violating the law. But given that his home county didn't see a significant uptick in support for Cochran in the runoff, there's little evidence to suggest that his old version of events is truer than his new one.

At the same time, the county-by-county review of ballots initiated by the McDaniel campaign doesn't appear to be finding large numbers of questionable votes. What McDaniel's team is looking for is any sign of voter fraud or ineligible ballots — for example, if a voter cast a ballot in the Democratic primary in the first election and a ballot in the Republican runoff. McDaniel's team has repeatedly claimed that there are thousands of instances of such votes, including in an interview with the Daily Beast published Thursday. (The source of those figures isn't clear.)

That county-by-county review includes observers from the Cochran campaign as well, and they've (giddily) released numbers which suggest that the scale of questionable ballots is in the range of a few hundred statewide, though the count isn't yet complete. According to their most recent figures, with counting completed in 61 of 82 counties, a total of 500 questionable (but not necessarily ineligible) votes have been found. That figure is far lower than the margin of Cochran's victory, which exceeds 7,500. (Interestingly, the county with the most questioned votes appears to be Forrest County, which was won by McDaniel.)

In an opinion piece in the Clarion-Ledger on Thursday, conservative commentator Ann Coulter suggested that McDaniel give up the fight, saying that his political future would be better served by being "magnanimous" and conceding. It's clear that McDaniel isn't particularly inclined to do so. But it's also clear that he may not have a choice for much longer.

Philip Bump writes about politics for The Fix. He is based in New York City.

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