Politics

05.20.14

The Strange Tale of the Tea Party Senate Hopeful and the Break-In

It’s not quite Watergate, but something’s brewing in Mississippi, where a blogger infiltrated Thad Cochran’s wife’s nursing home—and opponent Chris McDaniel can’t get his story straight.

Like Watergate, for Republican Senate candidate Chris McDaniel it’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up.

The irony is that McDaniel appears to be completely innocent of the crime—a break-in and filming at his opponent’s wife’s nursing home.

In late April, Clayton Kelly, a Mississippi blogger who runs the Constitutional Clayton blog, slipped into the nursing home where longtime Sen. Thad Cochran’s wife, Rose, who is bedridden with severe dementia, has lived since 2000. Kelly then posted a video on the Internet of Rose Cochran, with a pro-McDaniel and anti-Cochran voiceover. The video was taken down within a few hours but, in that short time, was apparently noticed. On Friday, Kelly was arrested and charged with exploitation of a vulnerable adult. He is being held in Madison, Mississippi, on $100,000 bond.

But questions are piling up about what the McDaniel campaign knew of Kelly’s actions and when it knew it. In a voicemail released by the Cochran campaign, McDaniel’s campaign manager, Melanie Sojourner, initially says, “We don’t know this guy. We have no idea who he is.” But then she appears to contradict herself, saying: “There was some stuff several months ago where this guy was doing some insane stuff online. We found out about it and Chris and I immediately sicced a bunch of volunteers trying to find out who was the source of just a lot of ugly rumors and nasty stuff and we wanted it squashed.”

And in an email obtained by Breitbart, Sojourner seems to be aware of the video, writing that it must come down on April 26, the day it was posted. “We have to know we cannot engage in these attacks,” she writes.

The McDaniel campaign originally denied any prior knowledge of the taping. At the time, a campaign spokesman said the candidate had not been fully briefed, but the campaign has put out several different timelines of what it knew and when. On Monday, Kelly’s wife told the Hattiesburg American that her husband took the video down after a request from McDaniel, or as Clayton Kelly referred to him at the time, “the big man.”

If the Tea Party hopeful had been straightforward from the beginning, the damage might have been minimized.

The campaign backed out of a scheduled meeting Monday with the editorial board of the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, the newspaper that first broke the story of the arrest, citing a conflict with what the paper implies may be a fictitious campaign event.

The campaign denies any connection to Kelly’s actions, and while the Madison Police Department has said it is investigating a conspiracy, no link has been discovered. The McDaniel campaign declined to respond questions from The Daily Beast about whether anyone on the campaign had retained legal counsel as a result of the investigation.

The pressing problem for the McDaniel campaign, though, isn’t its possible connections to Kelly—it’s the bungled response to the story. After all, Occam’s razor suggests that if a campaign is going to be involved in taking a bizarre photo of another candidate’s senile wife, it likely wouldn’t use a blogger named Constitutional Clayton to do so. But by initially denying any knowledge of the video and then repeatedly altering its timeline, McDaniel’s campaign looks like the Keystone Kops. It’s entirely defensible if staffers found out that “this guy was doing some insane stuff online” and then tried to stop him. Taking more than a day and several iterations of a story to acknowledge it is where things get dicey.

The McDaniel affair isn’t anything vaguely like Watergate—after all, Constitutional Clayton makes G. Gordon Liddy seem like Karl Rove—but by appearing to bungle a cover-up, the Mississippi candidate seems to have made the same tactical mistake as Nixon. If the Tea Party hopeful had been straightforward from the beginning, the damage might have been minimized. Instead, he’s fueled a story that is likely to continue until the June 3 primary and may do significant harm to McDaniel’s hopes of toppling a six-term incumbent like Cochran.