It’s an instant classic: the Mississippi GOP Senate primary of 2014, pitting a tea party upstart against a senior senator. There were ugly moments and moments of pathos, celebrity cameos and a bizarre incident involving a nursing home.
Perhaps the most surprising twist of all was Tuesday’s ending. Senator Cochran, on the verge of getting kicked to the curb, was saved … by Democrats. Many were black, and they crossed over to vote in the Republican primary when they realized (with help from Team Cochran) that their top man in Washington, skilled at delivering for Mississippi, was about to be vanquished.
The Mississippi primary of 2014, a drama in two acts, was so wacky it merited its own Buzzfeed quiz, called “Did this happen in the Mississippi Senate primary, Scooby Doo, or a John Grisham book?”
Before the world moves on and details start to grow fuzzy, we thought we’d review the highlights (and lowlights):
The nursing home incident. In May, conservative blogger Clayton Thomas Kelly – a supporter of Cochran’s opponent, state Sen. Chris McDaniel – was arrested for taking pictures of Cochran’s bedridden wife, Rose, in her nursing home. Three others were also arrested in connection with the incident, including a top member of the Central Mississippi Tea Party. Their cases are pending.
Mr. McDaniel and his campaign denied any connection to the caper, but it put McDaniel on the defensive and stalled his momentum. By primary day, June 3, he had recovered, and came in first by a nose. But McDaniel didn’t win a majority, and so the race went into a runoff June 24.
Cochran’s executive assistant. We still don’t know why Mr. Kelly allegedly broke into Rose Cochran’s nursing home, but one theory is that he was trying to call attention to the senator’s executive assistant, Kay Webber. Cochran rents a basement apartment in her Capitol Hill home when he’s in Washington, and has rented her first floor for fundraisers. Ms. Webber has also accompanied Cochran on numerous trips abroad and to Mississippi.
The Cochran campaign says their relationship is “strictly professional,” but if it’s something more, Mississippians are likely to be understanding, say political observers here. Mrs. Cochran is diagnosed with advanced dementia, and his been in the nursing home for 13 years.
‘Hey, hot mama.’ McDaniel used to have a talk radio show, and like many conservative talkers, he used provocative language. In April, an old recording from the show resurfaced, with McDaniel talking about reparations, Mexicans, and women. On the issue of whether to pay the descendants of slaves, McDaniel said, “If they pass reparations, and my taxes are going up, I ain’t paying taxes.”
In a discussion about Mexico, McDaniel asked for a translation. “Do you have a sister?” he asked. “What about mamacita?” “I think it basically means, ‘Hey, hot mama,’’’ he said.
The McDaniel campaign dismissed the recording as an old comment being dredged up by the liberal media. The story died down after a few days, and the Cochran campaign didn’t push it, preferring instead to focus on the senator’s clout in Washington.
Getting locked in the courthouse. The night of the June 3 primary, Scott Brewster, a staffer for the McDaniel campaign, and two others got locked in the Hinds County Courthouse in Jackson, Miss., and were stuck there until 3:45 a.m. The three people had entered the courthouse that evening to monitor the election process, and got locked in when the door closed behind them.
One of the people locked inside, Janis Lane, a member of the Central Mississippi Tea Party, contacted a local Republican official to get them out. After an investigation, District Attorney Robert Smith said he found no evidence of criminal activity.
Doing ‘indecent things with animals.’ At an event in Hattiesburg, Miss., 10 days before the runoff, Cochran offered a recollection from his childhood that raised eyebrows.
“It was an adventure, to be out there in the country and seeing what goes on. Picking up pecans — from that to all kinds of indecent things with animals," he recalled.
When a reporter asked later what he meant, he said, “I think maybe I was misunderstood.” And “I don't remember ever saying [that]." But the comment was taped, and a pro-McDaniel outside group used the clip in a TV ad, complete with the sound of a sheep bleating.
On numerous occasions, Cochran was asked about things – such as the fact that Virginia Rep. Eric Cantor (R) had lost his primary – and later seemed not to remember. But the “indecent” comment was the biggest head-scratcher, and the ad built around it the most off-color of the campaign.
Enter Brett Favre. The legendary former quarterback for the Green Bay Packers is a son of Mississippi, originally from Gulfport on the coast. When the Cochran-McDaniel primary went into overtime, political operatives from US Chamber of Commerce decided to track him down to do an ad for Cochran. Favre agreed, and quickly cut a TV ad praising Cochran’s record on education and disaster relief after hurricane Katrina.
“By the weekend before the runoff, the Chamber was spending about $100,000 a day on the race and running the Favre ad wall-to-wall in Mississippi, in a last-ditch effort to break through the clutter on local TV stations and win both wavering Republicans and so-called ‘Reagan Democrats’ over to the Cochran cause,” Politico reports.
McDaniel had his own celebrity backers – politicians Sarah Palin and Rick Santorum, and former game-show host Chuck Woolery – but none of them are from Mississippi. And nothing says Mississippi like Brett Favre (or maybe William Faulkner, but he wasn’t available).
Cochran supporters declared the ad a touchdown.