The mudslinging in Mississippi finally came to a head over the weekend. And insiders on both sides are now suggesting the Senate race there may be the most vicious campaign fight in the U.S. this year.
The race now includes salacious details that have made it explode into a national story over the past three days — rumours of candidate having an affair with a longtime staffer, the arrest of an activist for allegedly sneaking into a nursing home to take a picture of Republican Sen. Thad Cochran’s ailing wife, and allegations of police misconduct.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” one 20-year campaign veteran aligned with the Cochran campaign told Business Insider. “You’d be hard-pressed to find anything worse in the entire country.”
Amazingly, all of this nastiness has occurred between two members of the same party. The vicious battle is being fought between Cochran, an incumbent of more than three decades, and a conservative insurgent, State Sen. Chris McDaniel, ahead of a June 3 primary.
Their feuding reached a fever pitch Saturday, when news broke that local political activist and blogger Clayton Thomas Kelly was arrested after police said he sneaked into a Madison, Mississippi, nursing home to take a picture of Cochran’s wife without her consent.
Cochran’s wife, Rose, suffers from progressive dementia and she has lived in St. Catherine’s nursing home since 2000. Don Clark, an attorney who represents the Cochrans, told Business Insider in a statement that a picture was “taken inside of Mrs. Cochran’s room near her bedside.”
The picture was allegedly used for a video Kelly published on his blog that seems to have been part of an attempt to report on rumours about Cochran’s personal life. Kelly’s wife, Tara, and his attorney, Kevin Camp, told the Hattiesburg American on Monday night that he “received tips from someone on the Internet that Thad Cochran was having an affair” with a longtime staffer, at which time he decided to pursue the story. She said she didn’t know who provided the tips. Kelly’s original video and post containing the image has been removed.
Cochran supporters have suggested Kelly was used as a political pawn to fuel chatter about some kind of a romantic relationship between Cochran and his executive assistant, Kay Webber. Various conservative blogs have run with the rumour in recent weeks while reporting on Cochran’s extensive travel with Webber.
Cochran’s children, Clayton and Kate Cochran, defended their father in a statement to Business Insider.
“For over 13 years, our mother has been at St. Catherine’s Village where she has been treated for ever-increasing dementia,” they said.
“It is amazing and humbling to see how devoted our dad has been as mother has progressed from early dementia to complete loss of language to her current state of hospice care. He is a model of understanding for those who are losing their loved ones in this way. We are shocked by someone trying to use our mother’s illness for political purposes, and our family is unified in doing everything we can to protect her safety, privacy and security.”
In the aftermath of Kelly’s arrest, the McDaniel campaign tried repeatedly to disavow any ties to Kelly. But its story keeps changing, and the Cochran campaign has cited these shifts as evidence the McDaniel team may have been involved in the scheme to publish the nursing home photo.
Robert Sanders, the assistant police chief at the Madison Police Department, confirmed on Monday that police are looking into whether more people may have been involved in the picture’s publication.
On April 26, when Kelly originally published the photo, McDaniel campaign manager Melanie Sojourner sent an email to the campaign staff, according to a copy of the email obtained by Business Insider.
“If I find out anyone associated with our staff had anything to do with this it is immediate grounds for dismissal,” Sojourner wrote. “We have to know we cannot engage in these attacks.”
On Friday, three weeks after the photo was published, Jackson Jambalaya, a local website, posted a brief story on Kelly’s arrest that did not mention any connection to Rose Cochran. The Clarion-Ledger published the first story tying Kelly’s arrest to the photo of Cochran’s wife Saturday morning.
Early Saturday morning, at 7:41 a.m., Sojourner left a voicemail for Kirk Sims, Cochran’s campaign manager, that would provide ammunition for the Cochran campaign’s claims the McDaniel camp was changing its story about Kelly.
In her voicemail, Sojourner said the McDaniel campaign doesn’t “know this guy.” Kelly’s wife would later claim otherwise. Sojourner also said McDaniel was “very upset” about the incident, something he would contradict just hours later when he disavowed any knowledge of the story at all.
McDaniel provided even more fodder for the allegations he hasn’t kept his story straight about Kelly in a radio interview Tuesday morning. In that radio appearance, McDaniel said he knew about the video containing Rose Cochran’s photo when it was first published and called for it to be taken down. That would seem to contradict Sojourner’s prior claims she was unaware of Kelly’s activities. In the interview, McDaniel also claimed he didn’t fully understand the specifics of the video. McDaniel also refused to answer whether he’d quit if a member of his staff were connected to the video.
But as Cochran’s camp has repeatedly speculated about the McDaniel campaign’s ties to Kelly, McDaniel has suggested Cochran has attempted to exploit the situation.
For the past several days, McDaniel and his campaign have questioned why Cochran waited nearly three weeks to bring information of Kelly’s alleged nursing-home break-in to police. Clark, the Cochrans’ attorney, said he provided information to the Madison Police Department on Thursday, resulting in Kelly’s subsequent arrest.
The wait time between the initial posting of the video and Cochran’s reaction has led those sympathetic to McDaniel to openly question whether the Cochran campaign “held” the information so it would come out closer to the primary. On Monday, the McDaniel campaign released a poll showing its candidate ahead of Cochran to reinforce those claims.
“You think it’s a coincidence they held the nutjob blogger story ’til now?” one campaign operative close to McDaniel told Business Insider.
McDaniel supporters have also questioned the Madison Police Department and wondered whether the cops coordinated with the Cochran campaign. Erick Erickson, the editor-in-chief of the conservative political blog RedState, wrote a post Monday noting the lack of press releases from the department has issued this year before issuing a flurry of announcements on the Kelly investigation. Erickson said this disparity made him wonder if it was a “coordinated hit” on McDaniel.
Sanders, the assistant police chief, emphatically told Business Insider the suggestion his department coordinated with Cochran was “not true.”
“We are concentrating solely on the criminal side,” Sanders said. “Any suggestion otherwise is false.”
In a statement to Business Insider, Cochran’s lawyer, Clark, explained why he did not take the information to police immediately. Clark said he took his time he was looking into both criminal and civil case options.
“I can tell you that once Senator Cochran became aware of the video that contained an image of his wife, he asked me and our firm to represent him in pursuing whatever remedies he and his family might have,” Clark said.
“As we would in any similar situation, we gathered appropriate background information on his behalf and looked at his options for both civil and criminal remedies. That resulted ultimately in our contacting the appropriate law enforcement authorities on his behalf and turning this matter over to them. They have conducted their own investigation and have taken whatever actions they deemed appropriate. We have made it clear that we will continue to cooperate with them on Senator Cochran’s behalf in any way that we can.”
A Cochran campaign spokesperson further told Business Insider that the campaign does not “have anything to hide” with regard to the delay in contacting the police about the video.
The primary is two weeks from Tuesday.
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