While state Sen. Chris McDaniel's support among the Tea Party is holding strong, he has struggled amid reports that his campaign might have connections to a conservative activist who illegally took photos of Cochran's wife, who suffers from dementia and is in a nursing home.
Cochran supporters say that is hurting him among two crucial voting blocs: undecideds and mainstream Republicans open to a change.
“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 on Tuesday. “You have to say it would hurt a challenger when this comes out. “
Harper, like virtually the entirety of the Magnolia State Republican establishment, is supporting Cochran.
Heading into the final two weeks of the primary, Cochran supporters were concerned. They maintained optimism that the six-term senator would win but conceded privately that the race with McDaniel was tightening.
But the dynamic of the campaign, previously focused on whether Cochran would become the first GOP incumbent of the 2014 cycle to be ousted by a Tea Party challenge, was completely upended after news of the scandal broke Saturday morning.
Since then, McDaniel has been under siege by television and radio news throughout Mississippi, particularly in the central and southern counties of the state that are considered battlegrounds for Republican votes. He and his campaign have had to revise their timeline of what they knew about the incident and when they learned it, including admitting that both McDaniel and his campaign manager were not initially forthright with the press.
Adding to that perception, McDaniel this week canceled an editorial board interview with the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, the state capital's newspaper. McDaniel’s team on Monday pointed to two polls conducted last week on behalf of supportive Tea Party groups that showed him leading Cochran, which also showed Cochran’s favorable ratings have taken a huge dive.
The McDaniel campaign is insinuating Cochran of exploiting the incident to arrest his drop in the polls. “The McDaniel campaign has nothing to do with this terrible incident, and for the Cochran campaign and the D.C. establishment to suggest otherwise is absurd and a sure sign of desperation,” spokesman Noel Fritsch said.
The Cochran campaign did know about the incident before suspect Thomas Clayton Kelly was arrested late last week. But spokesman Jordan Russell said the campaign took the information it had to the proper law enforcement and legal authorities and remained quiet to allow the system to work. Only after an arrest was made and publicized did the Cochran campaign issue a comment.
Russell said the McDaniel campaign’s handling of this matter, particularly their changing stories regarding what they knew and when, “raises all kinds of questions.” Russell even suggested that McDaniel, an attorney, might have violated the legal code of conduct by not reporting the illegal photographs of Cochran’s wife to police immediately upon finding out about them.
“Our story’s never changed,” Russell said. “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.”