Chris McDaniel (left) and Thad Cochran (right)
A longtime incumbent and a firebrand startup vying for the Republican nomination to U.S. Senate continue sparring over a scandal that broke over the weekend and shows no sign of waning anytime soon.
Clayton Thomas Kelly, a conservative blogger from Pearl, was arrested Friday and charged with felony exploitation of a vulnerable adult for allegedly sneaking into a nursing home, photographing the bedridden wife of Republican U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran and posting an anti-Cochran video online, which used the photo. Rose Cochran, 72, has lived at St. Catherine's Village since 2000 and has dementia.
Kelly's Facebook page includes one photo of Kelly with Chris McDaniel at a campaign meet-and-greet event and another photo of a McDaniel campaign sign. Kelly has a blog called Constitutional Clayton (http://bit.ly/1sEK0iz), which includes a post that says: "When it comes to Republicans with a bad voting record, you can't get any worse than Thad Cochran. Thad should represent the 'Controlled Opposition' Wing of the Republicans more than John McCain or Lindsey Graham."
McDaniel immediately denounced the incident, stressing the campaign has no relationship with Kelly in either a volunteer or official capacity.
"I've reached out to Senator Cochran directly to express my abhorrence for the reprehensible actions of this individual. This criminal act is deeply offensive, and my team and I categorically reject such appalling behavior. My thoughts and prayers are with Senator Cochran and his family," McDaniel said through a statement released over the weekend.
"Politics is about the exchange of ideas, and this type of action has no place in politics whatsoever and will not be tolerated."
The story did not end there, however. After Kelly's arrest, The Clarion-Ledger obtained a recording that McDaniel's campaign manager, fellow Republican state Sen. Melanie Sojourner, left for Cochran's campaign manager, Kirk Sims. At the beginning of the message, Sojourner tells Sims that the McDaniel campaign has "no idea" who Kelly is, but later in the recording says "several months ago" the campaign realized Kelly was "doing some insane stuff online." Sojourner added that at the time she and McDaniel "sicced a bunch of volunteers" on trying to find out more about Kelly.
Cochran, 76, who was elected to the Senate in 1978 after six years in the U.S. House of Representatives, said through a statement Saturday:
"I have been fortunate to have a wonderful family, and like so many families, we are deeply affected by my wife's serious, long-term illness, that we consider to be a very private family matter. ... We will continue doing everything we can to protect my wife's safety and security."
The Associated Press reported that Cochran attorney Don Clark said Saturday the photo of Rose Cochran was taken near her bedside. Kelly's attorney said it was taken through an open door during visiting hours. Kelly voluntarily took down the video about 90 minutes after uploading it last month and is cooperating with investigators, said his attorney, Kevin Camp.
"He didn't do anything that was out of the norms of visitation. He took the photo and put it on the blog," Camp told AP.
As of today, the campaigns appear to be in political overdrive. McDaniel's camp released the results of a new poll from the conservative Citizens United Political Victory Fund showing that McDaniel leads Cochran in the race 43 percent to Cochran's 39 percent among likely voters; 15 percent of respondents are undecided or supporting another candidate. The headline of the news release says "No Wonder the Cochran Campaign is so Desperate."
In the meantime, the anti-McDaniel Mississippi Conservatives PAC has a talking mailer that calls McDaniel a loose cannon, similar to former Missouri Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin, who made controversial statements in 2012 about legitimate rape. When the card is open, a recorded message contains a clip of McDaniel saying that he did not understand the meaning of the word "mamacita" because he is white and suggesting that a Hispanic libertarian candidate was using her "boobies" to attract votes.
The Washington, D.C.-based news organization The Hill reported that the PAC has ties to former Gov. Haley Barbour and plans to spend $150,000 on the mailer campaign.
As of the end of the last federal-elections reporting period, March 31, Cochran had $1.5 million in cash on hand compared to McDaniel's $466,000.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.