State Sen. Michael Watson, a Republican candidate for secretary of state, was part of a legal team that sought to invalidate what they called “illegal and fraudulent” African American votes in a 2014 U.S. Senate runoff, arguing that blacks voting in the Republican primary cost state Sen. Chris McDaniel the election.
Watson was one of three attorneys McDaniel hired in the summer of 2014 to file an election challenge claiming that the campaign of then-U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran convinced — and at times coerced, the McDaniel lawyers argued — African Americans to vote against McDaniel in the runoff.
“The issue of race baiting in politics — that’s gross. That’s hurtful,” Watson said at a press conference that took place less than two weeks before he and the McDaniel attorneys filed the challenge. “The progress we’ve made, in especially my generation, to see the Barbour machine and these PACs do what they did in this election spits in the face of the progress we’ve made. We’ve got to address that… To see folks who call themselves conservative Republicans tear this state apart is wrong, and we’re going to put an end to it.”
Watson was referencing former Republican Gov. Haley Barbour, a political power broker whose family remains influential in statewide campaigns. Barbour’s nephews Austin and Henry Barbour helped coordinate Cochran’s 2014 campaign. This year, Austin Barbour is advising the campaign of Watson’s Republican opponent Sam Britton, currently the Southern District’s public service commissioner.
(Editor’s note: Gov. Haley Barbour has been a Mississippi Today donor.)
The 2014 Republican U.S. Senate primary garnered broad national interest as McDaniel, the outspoken tea party favorite, tried to defeat Cochran, an elder Washington statesman and longtime U.S. senator. McDaniel narrowly lost a runoff to Cochran three weeks after earning more votes than Cochran but not enough to avoid a runoff.
Watson, an attorney from Pascagoula, was a founding member of the Senate Conservative Caucus and has long been considered a up and comer in the Republican Party. The Washington, D.C.,-based nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation ranked Watson as the second most conservative member of the Senate, even higher than McDaniel.
McDaniel hired Watson along with attorneys Mitch Tyner and Steve Thornton, who developed a challenge to the results of the 2014 election on the basis of race. On the day the challenge was filed, Watson attended a press conference with McDaniel in Jackson.
“It’s no secret where people stood five years ago in that election,” Watson said in a statement to Mississippi Today. “But the election in two weeks is what you should be focused on, and I’m the only candidate who understands the law and duties of the office.”
Watson also touted his endorsements by conservative groups and officials, including by Gov. Phil Bryant, and criticized his opponent in the Republican primary. Britton declined to comment for this story.
On Aug. 4, 2014, McDaniel’s lawyers filed a 425-page challenge in Jones County Circuit Court arguing through documents that McDaniel should be declared the primary’s winner because of “voting irregularities,” including African American “crossover votes.”
In the court filing, the McDaniel attorneys quoted radio ads and social media posts from African Americans that touted Cochran’s support of African American cities and historically black colleges and universities. The ads also suggested that McDaniel would not serve their best interests in Washington, the attorneys argued.
“They put advertising on the radio and fliers that said if I were elected, people would lose the right to vote,” McDaniel told the Associated Press in July 2014. “They said if I were elected, welfare benefits would be cut off.”
Citing a broadly worded state law, the McDaniel lawyers argued that because African American voters typically vote for Democrats in Mississippi, their votes should be tossed because they wouldn’t support the Republican nominee in a general election.
The McDaniel legal team was not subtle in its court filing.
“Many pro-Cochran campaign advertisements in the days leading up to June 24 (runoff) were clearly targeted to the African American community,” the McDaniel attorneys wrote in one section of the legal challenge. “The ten counties where Cochran improved most (from the June 3 primary to the June 24 runoff) were those where blacks make up 69 percent or more of the population.”
Later in the challenge, the McDaniel attorneys said their investigation “uncovered evidence of the serious damage to the Republican Party election process caused by Cochran’s hustling Democrat voters in the Republican primary through race baiting scare tactics.”
They also argued that votes in Hinds, Claiborne, Coahoma, Madison and Sunflower counties should be excluded from the statewide results; doing so would have granted McDaniel the primary victory.
“If the Hinds County results are included in the statewide results, they contaminate the entire runoff election,” the McDaniel challenge read. “They destroy the integrity of the runoff election and make the will of qualified Republican electors impossible to determine. For that reason alone, the Hinds County results must be excluded from the statewide results.”
A judge dismissed the McDaniel lawsuit less than a month later, and the Mississippi Supreme Court rejected the McDaniel team’s appeal in October.
Watson was so invested in the challenge that he was visibly emotional in publicly discussing the case.
“I thank God that Chris (McDaniel) has stood for this challenge,” Watson said, his voice cracking, during a press conference at the time. “I’m thankful for all the volunteers that have canvassed all 82 counties (in search of voting irregularities).”
Watson’s role in the McDaniel challenge comes into focus as he pursues the job of overseeing all elections in Mississippi, which until recently was required to seek federal Justice Department approval for changes to voting laws.
The provision known preclearance was enshrined in the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to protect African Americans in states and other jurisdictions with a history of race-based voting discrimination. But a 2013 U.S. Supreme Court ruling removed the preclearance requirement, allowing states to enact election law changes with virtually no oversight other than the federal courts. The ruling cleared the way for Mississippi’s voter ID law to take effect; the 2014 Mississippi primaries were the first election in which voter ID was enforced.
A 2019 ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court solidified states’ authority to redraw legislative districts to favor political parties. In Mississippi, federal courts earlier this year told the Republican-led Legislature to redraw a state Senate district after three African Americans sued the secretary of state and other political officials alleging its original boundaries were discriminatory.
“A candidate’s philosophy about voting, particularly for the secretary of state, becomes very important,” said Corey Wiggins, executive director of the Mississippi NAACP. “Any Mississippian should be asking questions and should want someone in that office who has a values-based system that allows as many people to vote as possible. You don’t want someone in that office whose intent is limiting who votes.”
In his 2019 secretary of state campaign, Watson has continued to target what he calls other forms of “illegal” voting. He has proposed that the state conduct background checks on Mississippians when they register to vote “to confirm legal citizenship,” Watson’s campaign website says.
In the same vein, he wants the Secretary of State’s office to run the state’s driver’s license bureaus instead of the Department of Public Safety.
“What we’ve seen over the past eight to twelve months, what’s going on in Texas, California and other states, illegal immigrants are showing up on voter rolls,” Watson told WCBI in June without offering evidence for the assertion. “It’s an issue we want to address here in Mississippi, make sure that’s taken care of.”
Over the years, Watson has also sponsored legislation to tighten voting procedures, authoring or co-sponsoring bills that grew out of the McDaniel election challenge.
One bill would have established a closed primary system, mandating that Mississippians register as a member of political party and barring them from voting in another party’s primary. He filed another bill to “authorize procedures to promote full investigation and detection of election law violations.” Another Watson bill would “revise the procedure for examining certain records and for filing certain election contests.”
Watson filed these bills every legislative session from 2016 to 2019. None were considered in committee meetings.