4:17pm

Fri May 30, 2014
Politics

In Mississippi, A Senate Race Derailed By A Blogger's Photos

Originally published on Fri May 30, 2014 6:12 pm

Mississippi's Republican Senate primary has taken a bizarre and nasty turn as Tuesday's election draws near. The heated race is considered one of the Tea Party's best opportunities to unseat a longtime GOP incumbent, U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran.

His challenger, state Sen. Chris McDaniel, is struggling to stay on message after some of his supporters were arrested in a scheme to exploit Cochran's bedridden wife. These allegations threaten to overtake the storyline of this contest, once the classic tale of an establishment-backed senior senator in the race of his career against a Tea Party-aligned upstart.

Police say a conservative blogger and three other men, including a local Tea Party official, conspired to photograph 72-year-old Rose Cochran in the Mississippi nursing home where she has lived since 2000. She suffers from progressive dementia and is under hospice care.

Now, just days before Tuesday's Republican primary, the photo scandal dominates talk radio — and the candidates' campaign ad war.

"It just gets worse," says one ad. "Now Chris McDaniel's radio co-host, fundraiser and hometown friend, charged with felonies. The McDaniel campaign scandal spreads."

In reply, a McDaniel ad countered, "You've probably seen Thad Cochran's negative attack ads. Newspapers call them shameless. I call them outrageous."

Blogger Clayton Kelly allegedly used the images of Rose Cochran, taken Easter Sunday, in an online video. The video was intended to cast doubt on the six-term senator's relationship with a longtime Washington aide who has accompanied him on official trips overseas.

On the campaign trail, Cochran doesn't mention the controversy, saying that the ongoing investigation is out of his hands.

"I don't have any reaction to it except I hope it gets resolved and those who may have violated laws are dealt with according to the law," Cochran says.

Sid Seal, a pharmacist and Cochran supporter, just shakes his head when the topic comes to the tone of the race.

"It's probably the dirtiest race overall that I've seen in years," Seal says.

Millie Smith of Philadelphia, Miss., says that if McDaniel's supporters thought the photo would somehow boost his chances, they were wrong.

"It makes you wonder what their agenda is," Smith says.

McDaniel says he doesn't know why anyone would photograph his opponent's bedridden wife.

"Our campaign had absolutely nothing to do with that," McDaniel says. "We're focused on the issues right now, and we're going to move forward all the way to June the 3rd for a victory."

He doesn't think his campaign is tainted by the photo, even though news headlines say his supporters were behind it.

"No, not at all," McDaniel says. "The issues matter, and that's our focus."

Back on a bus tour through Mississippi, McDaniel tries to shift the attention to Cochran's extended tenure on Capitol Hill.

"What do you call a politician who's been in Washington 42 years?" McDaniel asks a crowd. "You call him home."

His loyal supporters are trying to stay on track as well, weathering the rain in Pearl, Miss., on Thursday evening to wave campaign signs at passing traffic.

Elva Eubanks has been driving around the state in what she calls Big Red, a bright red pickup truck with a giant "McDaniel for Senate" sign in the bed, talking up the candidate. She admits that the photo scandal does come up.

"I try not to bring it up," Eubanks says. "If somebody asks me about it I might say something, but I try to change the subject to something more positive."

That's McDaniel's strategy, too, and he's looking for a last-minute boost from some big-name national conservatives. Former Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum is endorsing McDaniel, and Sarah Palin is in the state campaigning with him Friday.

As for the other camp, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant is on the stump with Cochran.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And to Mississippi now where the Republican Senate primary has taken a bizarre and nasty turn ahead of next Tuesday's election. The race is arguably the Tea Party's best opportunity to unseat a longtime Republican incumbent - U.S. Senator Thad Cochran. His challenger, State Senator Chris McDaniel, is struggling to stay on message after some of his supporters were arrested in a scheme to exploit images of Cochran's bedridden wife. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Allegations that a conservative blogger photographed Thad Cochran's ailing wife threatened to overtake the storyline of this contest. Once the classic tale of the establishment-backed Senior Senator in the race of his career, against Tea Party aligned upstart, Chris McDaniel.

Police say the blogger and three other men, including a local Tea Party official, conspired to photograph 72-year-old Rose Cochran in the Mississippi nursing home, where she's lived since 2000. She suffers from progressive dementia and is under Hospice care. Now, just days before Tuesday's Republican primary, the photo scandal dominates talk radio and the candidates campaign ad war.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 1: It just gets worse. Now Chris McDaniel's radio co-host fundraiser and hometown friend charged with felonies. The McDaniel campaign scandal spreads.

CHRIS MCDANIEL: You've probably seen Thad Cochran's negative attack ads. Newspapers call them shameless, I call them outrageous.

ELLIOTT: The blogger, Clayton Kelly, allegedly used the images of Mrs. Cochran, taken Easter Sunday, in an online video. The video was intended to cast aspersions on the six-term Senator's relationship with the longtime Washington aide who has accompanied him on official trips overseas. On the campaign trail Cochran doesn't mention the controversy. He says the ongoing investigation is out of his hands.

SENATOR THAD COCHRAN: Well, you know, I don't have any reaction to it. Except, you know, I hope that it gets resolved and those who may have violated laws are dealt with according to the law.

ELLIOTT: It felt like old home week, as Cochran campaigned on the Mississippi gulf coast yesterday.

SID SEIL: I'm from Bauer. I used to go to church with your mama and daddy for years and years.

ELLIOTT: Sid Seil, a pharmacist - and Cochran supporter just shakes his head when it comes to the tone of the race.

SEIL: Probably the dirtiest race overall that I've seen in years.

MILLIE SMITH: It makes you wonder what their agenda is.

ELLIOTT: Millie Smith of Philadelphia, Mississippi, says if McDaniel supporters thought the photo would somehow boost his chances, they were wrong.

SMITH: It's really not helped at all with the picture. I was sad. I'm in health care, and I think that was a very big violation.

ELLIOTT: State Senator Chris McDaniel says he doesn't know why anyone would photograph his opponents bedridden wife.

MCDANIEL: Who knows, I just know our campaign had absolutely nothing to do with that, and from our standpoint we're focused on the issues right now. We're going to move forward all the way to June the 3 for a victory.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Still when a headline says, hey, this was your supporters doing this, that has to taint you a little bit.

MCDANIEL: No, not at all. The issues matter, and that's our focus.

ELLIOTT: On a bus tour through Mississippi, McDaniel tries to shift the attention to Thad Cochran's extended tenure on Capitol Hill.

MCDANIEL: What do you call a politician who's been in Washington 42 years?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 2: Too old.

MCDANIEL: No, you - you call him home.

ELLIOTT: His loyal supporters are trying to stay on track as well. Weathering the rain in Pearl, Mississippi, last evening to waive campaign signs at passing traffic. Elva Eubanks has been driving around the state in what she calls big red - a bright-red pickup truck with a giant McDaniel for Senate sign in the bed, talking up the candidate. She admits the photo scandal does come up.

ELVA EUBANKS: I try not to bring it up - or somebody asks me about it - I might say something but, try to change the subject to something more positive.

ELLIOTT: That's McDaniel's strategy too. And he is looking for a last-minute boost from some big-name national conservatives - former Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum is endorsing him and Sarah Palin is in Mississippi campaigning with McDaniel today. For the other camp, Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant is on the stump with Thad Cochran. Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Jackson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Related Program