JACKSON, Miss. — The jittery Republican Establishment here was breathing easier after a political scandal appeared poised to lift Sen. Thad Cochran over his aggressive Tea Party challenger in the waning days of Mississippi's volatile Senate primary campaign.
Support for Chris McDaniel among Tea Party conservatives was holding strong, even as the state senator struggled to explain his connections to a campaign supporter who was accused of taking illegal photographs of Cochran’s wife, Rose, and incorporating the Images into a political video attacking the incumbent posted on his weblog. Cochran’s wife suffers from advanced dementia and has lived in a nursing home since 2000. McDaniel repeatedly revised his story, including what he knew about the matter and when, as well as his campaign’s relationship with the suspect, Clayton Thomas Kelly.
|McDaniel, considered the Tea Party's best chance to oust a sitting Republican this year, needs more than his base to win.|
But Cochran supporters privy to private polling say the episode damaged the challenger among two crucial voting blocs: undecideds and mainstream Republicans open to making a change June 3. McDaniel, considered the Tea Party’s best chance to oust a sitting Republican this year, needs more than his base to win.
“I think it’s clear that Sen. Cochran is going to prevail, and this certainly is going to be in a lot of people’s minds that were considering — maybe were undecided,” Rep. Gregg Harper, R-Miss., told the Washington Examiner. “You have to say it would hurt the challenger when this comes out.”
Still, disgust with Washington is running high in Mississippi. That works against Cochran, 76, who has served in Congress since 1973 and is vying for a seventh Senate term. Magnolia State voters overwhelmingly go to the polls on Election Day, leaving plenty of time for McDaniel to recapture the momentum. The McDaniel campaign contends that it holds a growing lead, saying the Cochran campaign is pushing the photo story out of desperation.
“No doubt, many political campaigns resort to juvenile behavior when they are down in the polls, but this kind of slander goes beyond childish pranks. It is, frankly, an embarrassment,” McDaniel wrote in an open letter to Cochran that was publicized by his campaign.
Before the scandal broke, Cochran supporters were concerned as they headed into the homestretch of the bitter primary. They projected optimism that the incumbent would win, but conceded quietly that the race was tightening dangerously. Their fears were confirmed in discussions with voters in DeSoto County, considered both a bellwether and a crucial battleground.
Situated in the northwest corner of Mississippi, the county is a growing Memphis suburb home to newer Magnolia State residents — young families and retirees. They watch Memphis television, receive little news out of Jackson, Mississippi's capital, and are less in tune with the issues that have typically driven state politics. That’s problematic for Cochran, whose strength is his experience and all that he has done to steer federal money to Mississippi.
Even among some native Mississippians steeped in Republican Party politics, voter unrest, combined with Cochran’s longevity, left an opening for McDaniel to score with his message of national conservative renewal.
“The biggest disappointment with Thad, personally, is that he reaches across the party line, and I’m not into a Republican being a moderate,” GOP activist Brian Hodges, 40, said in an interview while attending a monthly meeting of the DeSoto County Republican Women in Olive Branch, Miss.
But the dynamic of the campaign was completely upended May 17, when news of Kelly’s arrest the day before came to light.
Since then, McDaniel has been under siege by television and radio outlets throughout Mississippi and in the major newspapers — particularly in the central delta and coastal battleground counties that are home to some of the largest blocs of Republican voters. McDaniel has fueled the fire by admitting that he and his campaign were not initially forthright with the public and that they knew more about the incident, and about Kelly, than originally claimed.
The Cochran campaign pounced.
First, Cochran’s campaign insinuated that McDaniel couldn’t get his story straight because he was hiding the fact that the campaign was linked to Kelly, and somehow involved in his decision to slip into Rose Cochran’s nursing home and snap the illegal photographs and post the political attack video. Then the Cochran campaign suggested that McDaniel, a lawyer, might have violated Mississippi’s legal code by failing to report a crime.
It’s clear that the Cochran campaign now views this issue as its best line.
“Why can’t Chris McDaniel and his campaign be on the same page and get their stories straight? It really feels like there’s something going on here,” spokesman Jordan Russell said.