The tea party's brief history has been marred by candidates making deeply offensive comments that sent their election hopes crashing. Now, that storyline could be getting a new twist in Mississippi.
Chris McDaniel, who is running a tea party-fueled primary challenge against Sen. Thad Cochran (R), didn't say anything troublesome at all this weekend. Yet his campaign could be in serious trouble because of what one of his supporters did.
The supporter was arrested Friday and accused of breaking into a senior care facility and taking a video of Senator Cochran's wife, who has been diagnosed with an advanced stage of dementia and is currently bedridden. The supporter then incorporated the video into a homemade attack piece against Cochran.
There has been no claim on either side that the McDaniel campaign was behind the video. Mr. McDaniel released a strong statement Saturday morning.
"I have reached out to Sen. 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 any such appalling behavior. My thoughts and prayers are with Sen. Cochran and his family. Politics is about the exchange of ideas and this type of action has no place in politics whatsoever and will not be tolerated."
Yet that was not the end of it.
The Cochran campaign is questioning how McDaniel's campaign knew about the arrest before the news broke and is suggesting that the timeline put forward by McDaniel and his staffers "appears to be inconsistent," according to The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss.
With less than three weeks until the primary, it is a distraction the McDaniel campaign can ill afford. The latest Harper poll of the race from early April shows McDaniel trailing Cochran by 17 points. Some 32 percent of respondents said they were "not sure" what they thought of McDaniel, suggesting his numbers could still go up. But they could just as easily go down, and the new allegations mean McDaniel will surely be on the defensive in the days ahead.
It is unclear how long the McDaniel campaign knew of the attack ad, which suspect Clayton Thomas Kelly reportedly posted to his YouTube account on April 26. But the Republican establishment will see this as further vindication of their war against many tea party candidates this election cycle.
Since the tea party movement began in 2009, Republicans have seen winnable Senate races slip away in Delaware, Indiana, and Missouri, among other states, after more moderate establishment candidates lost primaries to ideologically driven insurgents.
In 2012, Indiana Senate candidate Richard Mourdock said "it's something God intended" when a woman is impregnated during a rape, while Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin said women rarely get pregnant during a "legitimate rape."
Though McDaniel could have nothing whatsoever to do with Mr. Kelly's actions, establishment figures will see Kelly's YouTube video as part of the risk inherent with many tea party candidates. Tea party activists have tried to limit the potential for these bombshells by being more careful about who they support. As a state senator, McDaniel seemed a safe choice. But now he has been dragged into scandal by a supporter during the crucial last days of the race.
The question of timing centers around a voice mail left for Cochran's campaign manager at 7:45 a.m. Saturday. In the voice mail, McDaniel's campaign manager said the campaign had nothing to do with the video. But the story identifying Rose Cochran as the victim in the video didn't appear until 9:24 a.m. Also, both McDaniel and his spokesman said they knew nothing about the case later that morning.
A McDaniel campaign official told the Clarion-Ledger that a staffer had realized what was going on from an earlier news report that didn't mention Mrs. Cochran by name, but McDaniel and his spokesman had not been briefed on it sufficiently to comment Saturday morning.
Scott Brewster, coalition director for McDaniel's campaign, suggested to the Clarion-Ledger that he knew of the video, though he left the timing unclear.
"I do remember when it came out," Mr. Brewster said. "I think people made some phone calls [to have it removed]. I didn't personally – nobody personally talked to [Kelly]. I don't know if anybody made phone calls about it. I'm not sure. Just, I remember all of a sudden it was gone."