PHOTO: Tea Party supported candidate Chris McDaniel talks to supporters during campaign rally in Biloxi, Miss., Sunday, June 22, 2014. McDaniel is in a runoff for the Republican nomination with incumbent Sen. Thad Cochran. (AP Photo/The Sun Herald, Tom Isbell )
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Race is roiling the Republican Senate runoff in Mississippi, a state with a long history of divided politics where the GOP is mostly white and the Democratic Party is mostly black.
National tea party groups say they are working to "ensure a free and fair election" by sending several dozen observers to precincts to watch who votes during Tuesday's GOP contest, concerned about six-term Sen. Thad Cochran's efforts to persuade Mississippi Democrats to cast ballots. Challenger Chris McDaniel and the tea party portray cross-party voting as dangerous and even illegal, though state law allows it.
"Thad Cochran and his establishment handlers are out trolling, begging for Democrats to cross over and vote in the Republican runoff," Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund chairwoman Jenny Beth Martin said in announcing that her group and two others have hired an attorney to watch Tuesday's primary.
While Cochran rarely mentions race, he readily acknowledges he's seeking support from black and white voters.
"I think it's important for everybody to participate," he said. "Voting rights has been an issue of great importance in Mississippi. People have really contributed a lot of energy and effort to making sure the political process is open to everyone."
Cochran's campaign staff believes he would get a boost if Mississippi voters who traditionally go for Democrats — black voters and union members — participate in the GOP runoff. The Republican nominee will be a heavy favorite in November, and several prominent black Democrats are supporting the incumbent as far preferable to his primary challenger.
At a Tea Party Express rally Sunday in Biloxi, McDaniel, a state senator, never mentioned race. But he received loud applause when he said: "Why is a 42-year incumbent pandering to liberal Democrats to get re-elected?"
A man in the crowd shouted: "Reparations!" McDaniel did not respond.
PHOTO: This June 30, 2009 file photo shows Vicksburg, Miss. Mayor, then-State Rep. George Flaggs, D-Vicksburg speaking at the Capitol in Jackson, Miss. With sending a Republican to the U.S. Senate likely, several black Mississippians who may otherwise vote Democratic tried to swing a primary victory toward six-term incumbent Sen. Thad Cochran by casting ballots in their state’s GOP primary. Flaggs who served 26 years in the state House of Representatives before winning the city office in 2013, said Tuesday he voted for Cochran because “Thad's been good for Mississippi,” and helped bring a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' research station to his city.
Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund and two other independent groups that are supporting McDaniel, FreedomWorks and Senate Conservatives Fund, say they have hired a former Justice Department attorney, J. Christian Adams, "to ensure a free and fair election in Mississippi on June 24."
Adams was the Justice Department attorney who handled a 2007 case in which Ike Brown, a black elections official, was found to have violated the rights of white voters in majority-black Noxubee County. It was the first time the Justice Department had used the 1965 Voting Rights Act to allege racial discrimination against whites.
"Election integrity is essential, and Mississippi has a long, documented and tragic history of lawlessness in elections," Adams said. "The outcome of the runoff should be determined by who gets the most votes, not by who manipulates the system the best."
FreedomWorks spokesman Adam Brandon said Monday that the groups will send several dozen volunteers to precincts Tuesday, but he would not say where.
Asked if the Justice Department is watching this year's runoff, Justice Department spokeswoman Dena Iverson said in an email: "The department is aware of concerns about voter intimidation and is monitoring the situation." Voters who experience problems are encouraged to report them, she said.
Mississippi voters do not register by party, and state law says the only people prohibited from voting in the Republican runoff Tuesday are those who voted in the Democratic primary June 3.
But there's potential for confusion as the tea party groups cite another Mississippi law that says a voter can participate in a party primary only if he intends to support that party's nominee in the general election. A federal appeals court ruled in 2008 that the law is unenforceable. The ruling came in a case in which Democrats sought to block Republicans from crossing over in primaries.
A McDaniel supporter filed a lawsuit Monday in McDaniel's home county citing that law, but it was not clear if a judge would consider the suit before polls open Tuesday.
Mississippi's attorney general, a Democrat, and secretary of state, a Republican, issued a joint statement Monday saying: "A person lawfully in the polling place may challenge a voter based on party loyalty only if the voter openly declares he does not intend to support the nominees of the party whose primary the voter is participating in."
About 9 out of 10 white voters in Mississippi said they supported Republican nominee Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election, and more than 9 of 10 black voters said they supported Democratic President Barack Obama, according to an exit poll conducted for The Associated Press and other news organizations. Still, Cochran is supported by some black Democrats, including Vicksburg Mayor George Flaggs and state Sen. Willie Simmons.
Simmons told the AP on Monday that he voted in the Democratic primary June 3 and can't vote in the GOP runoff Tuesday, but he has campaigned for Cochran by making phone calls and sending letters to black churches citing the former Appropriations Committee chairman's support of Head Start and historically black universities.
"Sen. Cochran himself did not even ask me to support him," Simmons said. "I volunteered to support him because of the things he has done in the Senate."
Simmons said that while some black Mississippians quietly vote for Republicans in general elections, they might be reluctant to publicly declare their intentions by going to a Republican table to request a ballot on primary day.
"This election is going to put them in a position where they have to do two things that is unusual for them," Simmons said. "First, they have to pull out an ID and show it. And, second, they have to vote in a Republican runoff."
Simmons said if a poll watcher cites the unenforceable law about not voting in a primary unless intending to support the nominee in the general election, "that could lead to intimidation."
Associated Press Writer Eric Tucker contributed from Washington