Washington Bureau

07.02.14

Racists and Conspiracy Nuts Turn Cochran Call Into The Biggest Campaign Sh*tshow of 2014

A week after defeating Chris McDaniel, the Republican campaign opened a line to reporters. Then all hell broke loose.

The Senate race in Mississippi is so strange that they can’t even get through a conference call without weirdness breaking out.

After winning last week’s Republican runoff, the campaign of six-term incumbent Senator Thad Cochran held a conference call for national media on Wednesday to respond to allegations from defeated Tea Party challenger Chris McDaniel that the election was somehow stolen. The call lasted about ten minutes before descending into absolute anarchy after a pro-McDaniel blogger obtained the dial-in information and posted it on Twitter. With McDaniel supporters streaming on and the Cochran campaign using a free service where they couldn’t mute callers, it turned into mayhem.

The call, hosted by Austin Barbour, a senior advisor to the Cochran campaign, started off with a vigorous defense of the senator’s win last week. Barbour said that “while we’ve been very gracious to [State] Senator McDaniel and his supporters about their effort . . . the time now has come that we as the Cochran campaign can no longer sit in silence with baseless rumors fed by McDaniel campaign and its out of state allies.” Barbour started to go through what the campaign was doing as well as reviewing returns in key precincts called into question by McDaniel. Then things fell apart. 

An unidentified male caller continued to interrupt Barbour by asking about whether “It was OK for Cochran to harvest black votes like black people harvested cotton?” The questioner repeatedly chimed in and eventually Barbour gave up, saying reporters with questions should contact either him or campaign spokesman Jordan Russell on their cellphones. 

The call then continued for another 30 minutes as various people engaged in extended debate about whether the man who interrupted the call was a Cochran plant or “maybe Obama” as one person speculated.  They darkly noted that whoever asked the question “wasn’t doing McDaniel no favors” and suggested that it was part of a plot to get the national media to say that McDaniel supporters think African Americans are “cotton-pickers.” Another woman on the call was confused about the harvesting cotton reference, after all, she said she was a 36-year-old white female who had harvested cotton too. Eventually, McDaniel supporters started urging other fellow Tea Partiers to get off the call with one loud voice saying "McDaniel supporters, hang up the phone now." At that point, the call first got meta as those remaining read tweets about the ongoing conference call. Eventually, it descended into people playing clips of Barack Obama and Dick Cheney off Internet soundboards before it was finally disconnected. 

The call always had the potential to go off the rails. Certain elements of the conservative blogosphere have become ardent supporters of McDaniel. One of the first people to join in was a Florida blogger named Andrea Shea King who introduced herself to everyone who came on as “Andrea from Florida.” She spent the minutes before the call musing about whether the election had been stolen and making a dismissive remark about the Jackson Clarion-Ledger’s reporting.

Afterwards, Barbour told The Daily Beast that McDaniel supporters were trying “desperate measures” to “inflate some number of votes that they’ve got issues with.”

Barbour also said that he thought the campaign would reconsider how it would hold future conference calls. The veteran political operative did realize the joy that national reporters took from the fiasco. “I’m proud to have made your day by giving you that.” In the meantime, anonymous people were playing clips from Animal House on the call.