By Therese Apel
JACKSON Miss. (Reuters) - A campaign official for U.S. Senate candidate Chris McDaniel and two others are under investigation in Mississippi after being found locked inside a courthouse where ballots in Tuesday's Republican primary had been counted hours earlier.
Investigators are trying to figure out how the three people entered the Hinds County Courthouse in Jackson, Mississippi, shortly after 2 a.m. on Wednesday and what they were doing there, said sheriff's spokesman Othor Cain.
The group included Scott Brewster, McDaniel's campaign coalition coordinator; Janis Lane, a Central Mississippi Tea Party board member; and Rob Chambers, a consultant with the Mississippi Baptist Convention's Christian Action Commission.
"There are conflicting stories from the three of them, which began to raise the red flag, and we're trying to get to the bottom of it," Cain said.
McDaniel is locked in a bitter primary fight with Republican U.S. Senator Thad Cochran that is headed to a June 24 runoff after neither candidate got 50 percent of the vote.
The Mississippi race is one of several primary battles this year highlighting the tension between the Republican Party and its more conservative Tea Party wing. It is seen as the Tea Party's best chance to knock off an incumbent senator ahead of November's congressional election.
In a statement late Wednesday, the McDaniel campaign said the three were sent to the courthouse to observe the ballot count and got locked inside after entering through an open door at the direction of uniformed personnel.
They called for help and eventually were let out by a sheriff's officer, said McDaniel spokesman Noel Fritsch.
But Cain called the campaign's version of events a "fabrication," saying no one was on duty to let anyone in after the courthouse was locked Tuesday night.
The contest has already been steeped in controversy after a local blogger snuck into a nursing home to photograph Cochran's bedridden wife, who suffers from dementia. McDaniel's campaign denied any involvement, but four of his supporters face criminal charges in that incident.
No one has been charged in the latest incident, which Cochran's campaign said was another example of his Tea Party challenger being unsuited for the Senate.
"It is astonishing that the same people who are up to their eyeballs in four felons breaking into a nursing home are also up to their eyeballs in potentially breaking in somewhere else again," Cochran campaign spokesman Jordan Russell told the Clarion-Ledger newspaper. "And this time they can’t deny that a paid staffer is involved."
(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Susan Heavey)