Will an Illegal Video of His Bedridden Wife Give Veteran Sen. Thad Cochran Six More Years?

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May 29 2014 7:09 PM

Mississippi Ugly

Will a conservative blogger’s blunder bring down a Tea Party favorite and give Thad Cochran six more years in the Senate?

Thad Cochran and Chris McDaniel
Mississippi state Sen. Chris McDaniel, left, is gunning for the U.S. Senate seat of fellow Republican Thad Cochran, and is getting plenty of “help” along the way.

Photo Illustration by Slate. Photos by (left) Jonathan Bachman/Reuters and (right) Jonathan Ernst/Getty.

JACKSON, Mississippi—On the drive in, it’s easy to miss the trailer that Tara Kelly shares with her husband, Clayton. Two cars, one of them busted, are parked in a short driveway. A patio is happily cluttered with the toys and bikes of the couple’s autistic daughter. The only indication that a political activist lives here is a sign for Senate candidate Chris McDaniel, shoved mostly out of sight, under some stairs.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

“Yeah, we’re sort of trying to get that out of the way,” Tara Kelly says, referring to the campaign sign as she invites me to sit on the porch. She’s just returned from her regular 30-minute visit with Clayton, who’s in prison on a $200,000 bond. (He will only be freed on Thursday, after the bond is reduced.) Ten days earlier he was arrested for allegedly gaining access to the nursing home where Sen. Thad Cochran’s wife lies bedridden with dementia, and taking video of what he saw. The video briefly appeared on his YouTube account, Constitutional Clayton, before McDaniel’s campaign asked (via an email to other activists) that it be taken down.

“I told him not to do it,” says Tara Kelly. “I wouldn’t want anyone taking a picture of me in a hospital! But he really wanted to get his name out there as a journalist. And he has gotten his name out there. Just not the way he expected. He thought he was getting the scoop.”

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Instead, Clayton Kelly made a decision that roiled the year’s tightest race between an incumbent Republican and an avatar of the Tea Party. McDaniel, a state senator and former talk show host, entered the race in October 2013, after the Club for Growth had already gone on the air trashing Cochran, and after he’d huddled with conservative PACs that wanted fresh Republican-In-Name-Only scalps. He outraised and outcampaigned a senator who’d won his first congressional campaign a few months after McDaniel was born. The first polling on the race gave Cochran a single-digit lead; the last poll, paid for by one of the many McDaniel-endorsing conservative groups, gives a slight edge to the challenger.

That poll was taken after the Cochran campaign and media outlets from Mother Jones to the Wall Street Journal “vetted” McDaniel. The candidate had endured weeks of stories about his radio days, and Republican primary voters did not clutch their pearls and flee after they learned McDaniel had criticized rap culture.

The only problem: The poll was also taken before the arrest of Constitutional Clayton. It was also taken before police charged three more activists, one of them the vice chairman of the Mississippi Tea Party, Mark Mayfield.

“He didn’t even know them when he was sitting in the same cell as them,” says Tara Kelly. “My personal opinion is they were just using him as the fall guy. He didn’t know them other than over Facebook.”

And the poll was definitely taken before Cochran’s campaign put out an ad that splayed Clayton Kelly’s face across TV screens, called him (correctly) “a Chris McDaniel supporter charged with a felony,” and asked voters to rise up and say no to dirty politics.

“Aren’t they exploiting his picture as well?” asks Tara Kelly. “That’s what I think, but that’s just my opinion as his wife.”

The race will be decided, by people who don’t know any of these activists, don’t know or want to know what happened at the nursing home, and don’t know why the whole imbroglio began. Why was Cochran a target in the first place? On Tuesday, after talking to Kelly, I stop by the biweekly meeting of the Central Mississippi Tea Party, where there’ll be a lecture on Obamacare and a huddle about how to beat the senator.

“One way to measure how successful we are is by securing votes for our candidate,” says Janis Lane, the president of the group. “Chris McDaniel is the man of the hour. He is chosen for a time such as this. He is our current-day Esther. He is what we need in Mississippi to make a change in the political process of this state.”

What “process” is that? Lane explains, without getting into specifics, that an accused child molester is currently being held on a $50,000 bond. Twenty-odd activists murmur at that—they do not need to be told that several of their awkward political allies are being held for much more. Lane refers obliquely to McDaniel’s “willingness to put himself and his family in this situation,” and at how the Tea Party has had “some challenges thrown in our way, and some obstacles.”

After the meeting ends, the activists hang back to explain. “About three weeks ago, we knew there’d be an ‘October surprise,’ ” says Don Hartness, a veteran who often stands at the side of a road in Jackson waving an American flag and raising money for the wounded. “We just didn’t know what it was going to be. Mark [Mayfield] is a personal friend, and this is just so out of character for him.”

And the whole story has let Cochran slide. According to Tea Party activists, Cochran’s alleged conservatism is not backed up by his votes. Any Republican who voted to fund Obamacare in last year’s continuing resolution—which, in Washington, was seen as the inevitable outcome after a disastrous conservative feint—is suspect.

“When I watch TV,” says businesswoman Kay Allen, who’s wearing only red, white, and blue, “whether it’s Fox or whoever I watch, I watch for which people are stepping out and putting bills on the floor and saying what they believe. People like Rep. Jason Chaffetz, Sen. Kelly Ayotte, Sen. Ted Cruz, Rep. Trey Gowdy.”

The next morning I drive north to the town of Grenada. McDaniel is traveling far outside his base, through northern Mississippi, into the towns that border Tennessee. An 8 a.m. rally is scheduled in the town square, which is marked by a monument to Confederate veterans and anchored by a white gazebo.

McDaniel’s bus, wrapped with his campaign logo and a king-size picture of the Constitution, rolls past the gazebo and into a nearby lot. The rally is downsized to a meet-and-greet. After the crowd has gathered, McDaniel strolls out of the bus in shirtsleeves and slacks to thank everyone for “braving the rain.” He praises a retired firefighter (“a heck of a service, isn’t it?”) and is thrilled by a Navy veteran who retired after 40 years.

“It was time to do something else,” says the veteran.

“Just like the Senate, huh?” says McDaniel.