Mississippi Senate Battle Descends Into Madness

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
July 2 2014 6:14 PM

Mississippi Senate Battle Descends Into Madness

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Senate race damage in Mississippi

Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

A few hours ago, the campaign of Sen. Thad Cochran —which had (understandably) assumed the June 24 primary election to be on the books already—held a press conference to vigorously rebut charges of fraud. For days, Tea Party activists and the campaign of Chris McDaniel had been looking at poll books for evidence of illegal crossover voting, hoping to find enough to cast doubt on the result. In the last 24 hours, the conservative election watchdog True the Vote and the defeated Tea Party umbrella group FreedomWorks had, respectively, sued on behalf of the people scouring poll books and asked for the FBI to investigate a claim that Cochran had bought votes.

The press conference went largely without incident. The same could not be said of a follow-up conference call with national reporters. At 3:46 pm ET, reporter Charles Johnson—who had reported the "vote-buying" story, which went viral on conservative media—tweeted the details of the call, encouraging followers to "crash it with me."

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About eight minutes into the rote call, someone butted in to ask the Cochran campaign's Austin Barbour why "it was okay to harvest the votes of black people."

"I will be happy to answer any questions from any members of the media," said Barbour.

The interrupter was not done. "I'd like to know if black people were harvesting cotton, why is it okay to harvest their votes? They're not animals."

"I'm happy to answer any questions from the national media," said Barbour.

"Why did you use black people to get Cochran elected when they're not even Republicans?" asked the interrupter. "You treated them like they were idiots."

The call spiralled into insanity from there, with Barbour jumping off, reporters asking for the interrupter to ID himself (he didn't) and more crashers deploying Obama soundboards and a loop of John Vernon's immortal quote from Animal House. "The time has come for someone to put his foot down, and that foot is me."

Left with no official response or answers from Team Cochran, journalists ran to the wires with stories about the botched call. But this was only the tip of the weirdness iceberg. It baffles the Cochran campaign that Johnson, a freelance journalist with a proud conservative bent, has been able to drive a narrative in this race. I've written a couple of pieces criticizing two Johnson stories—one 2013 piece that raised doubts on Cory Booker's residence in Newark (a story Booker's opponent called a press conference to publicize) and one 2014 piece that mistook a satirical news story for proof that a New York Times reporter had posed in Playgirl. Johnson has predicted that his critics would try to discredit him by bringing up stuff like that, so, having cleared the decks, I offer this brief guide to Johnson's Cochran reporting—which is tweeted in what seems like real time.

1. That time he said the National Republican Senatorial Committee's spokesman is culpable in the suicide of a Tea Party leader.

2. That time he defended paying for the vote-buying story.

3. That time he described his talk with an impressed FBI agent.

4. That time he said Cochran will resign if McDaniel successfully challenges the election.

5. That time he made a Breaking Bad reference to shame Cochran's spokesman.

6. That time he said "bring it on, bitches" to Team Cochran.

7. That time he said he could have run the Romney campaign better than Cochran's strategist.

Johnson cannot be cowed; he frequently names his critics and laughs at the idea they would ever sue him. This is the driving force in the Mississippi Senate race's aftermath.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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