Tea party leader Mark Mayfield suicide: A sign of politics 'beyond the pale'?

Mississippi tea party leader Mark Mayfield died, apparently in a suicide, after being charged in a scheme to photograph Sen. Thad Cochran’s wife in a nursing home.

Rogelio V. Solis/AP
Mark Mayfield, right, and attorney John Reeves, left, listen as Mayfield's attorney Merrida Coxwell speaks in Madison, Miss., city court. Mayfield was charged with conspiring to take photos of Sen. Thad Cochran's wife inside a nursing home.

Mark Mayfield, a respected lawyer and tea party operative in Mississippi, has died after being accused of taking part in an unseemly, Watergate-like conspiracy to undermine long-time Sen. Thad Cochran’s campaign.

No foul play is suspected around the self-inflicted gunshot wound, local police said. Mr. Mayfield left a note behind, but authorities have not released it.

A tea party group board member, Mayfield had worked to get Sen. Cochran’s challenger Chris McDaniel elected. On Tuesday, Cochran narrowly won the primary. Mr. McDaniel has denied involvement, and has not been implicated in the scheme to photograph Cochran's wife at a nursing home. 

For many Mississippians, the death came as a tragic coda to a bitter primary fight that pitted mainstream Republicans against the party’s highly mobilized tea party flank. It also underscored the high personal stakes of dirty campaigning, as some of Mayfield’s friends alleged he was the victim of over-the-top character assassination by fellow Republicans.

Mr. Mayfield was charged on May 22 with conspiring with three other men to take a photo of Sen. Thad Cochran’s wife, Rose, who is in a nursing home. The photo was used briefly as part of an anti-Cochran ad. Mayfield didn’t take the photo, but allegedly used knowledge of the facility to help a blogger gain access.

Police charged all four with conspiracy to photograph someone without their permission on private property, a felony. In his 50s, Mayfield had by all accounts had a distinguished career as a lawyer and a political gadfly whose name became synonymous with efforts to get tea party candidates elected. A felony conviction would likely have been disastrous for his career and reputation.

The arrest stunned Mayfield, who shut down his Facebook account and seemed openly devastated by what had happened, especially after a large number of police officers carried out the arrest. The news took an immediate toll, writes the Jackson Clarion-Ledger’s Sam Hall.

“Mayfield remained locked in a world of uncertainty and fear,” Mr. Hall writes. “The day after his arrest, he started losing clients, including three banks that were large clients … The ordeal destroyed him.”

Emotion was raw after Mayfield’s death.

An aide to McDaniel accused mainstream Republicans of politicizing the nursing home scandal to build sympathy for Cochran, at Mayfield’s expense.

“The politicization of the incident was beyond the pale,” McDaniel aide Keith Plunkett tells Politico.

One of Mayfield’s friends, Pat Bruce of the Madison County Conservative Coalition, told the Clarion-Ledger’s Hall that Cochran attack ads showing Mayfield’s face as an alleged conspirator in the scandal played a role in Mayfield’s ultimate decision.

“That was too much, too personal of an attack on those individuals who remain innocent until proven guilty,” Mr. Bruce told the paper. “Mark’s death just kind of puts an exclamation point on how out of control this has all gotten.”

“Nobody should have died over this,” Mississippi tea party leader Grant Sowell, a Mayfield friend, told the AP. “It’s just an election.”

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