HERNANDO, Miss. -- Sen. Thad Cochran’s (R-Miss.) campaign is raising questions about when his primary challenger knew about the arrest of an activist who videotaped the incumbent’s bedridden wife.
A voicemail from Sen. Chris McDaniel’s campaign manager, fellow state Sen. Melanie Sojourner (R), to Cochran manager Kirk Simms at 7:45 a.m. on Saturday expressed outrage and disgust over the actions of conservative activist Clayton Kelly, who was arrested for sneaking into Rose Cochran’s nursing home room and taking video and photos.
Cochran’s wife, who suffers from dementia, has reportedly lived at the nursing facility since 2000.
But that account conflicts with what McDaniel told The Hill at a craft fair in Hernando on Saturday morning. Looking visibly surprised, McDaniel said he hadn’t heard the news, which the Clarion Ledger reported less than an hour earlier, and called Kelly’s actions “appalling.
First reported by the Clarion Ledger, the footage obtained by Kelly was for an apparent political hit on Cochran that he posted to his political blog and removed shortly after. McDaniel’s campaign has vehemently denied any involvement and condemned his actions.
“I don’t guess I’ve been awake long enough to see what’s happened,” McDaniel told The Hill.
“Never in a million years would we condone that,” McDaniel continued. “Such behavior is appalling. It should never take place. The things that matter in this campaign are his voting record. That’s the only thing that matters.”
But Cochran’s campaign says the timeline of when McDaniel said he learned of the arrest is inconsistent with what his campaign manager told them.
“While there was no public news of the arrest until the Clarion Ledger story at 9:24, so there was no public report of it, so how would the campaign know?” asked Cochran spokesman Jordan Russell. “It’s just an inconsistent story.”
McDaniel's campaign spokesman Noel Fritsch later told the Clarion Ledger that McDaniel's response contradicted Sojourner's voicemail because when interviewed by The Hill he had not been given the full details on the situation.
"At around 7:30 AM CDT, Chris was notified only briefly of the incident and the need to personally reach out to Sen. Cochran," Fritsch said.
He added: "Shortly thereafter, Melanie called Cochran campaign manager Kirk Sims to express in strongest terms the campaigns' condemnation of the alleged crime. Alex Jaffe interviewed Chris at around 9:30 AM CDT during an event, at which time Chris had still not been fully briefed. Chris was not fully briefed until he left event around 10:30 AM CDT, at which point the campaign issued a statement at 10:49 AM CDT."
Cochran is facing a vigorous challenge from McDaniel, backed by many national conservative and Tea Party groups who say the 36 year-Senate veteran isn’t conservative enough for the state, pointing to the longtime appropriator’s record on spending. But Cochran, who still wields considerable political power in the state, has fought back, with the help of other national establishment groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
The latest twist in the bitter fight, just over two weeks ahead of their June 3 primary, threatens to change the direction of the race even more. National Republicans have raised questions over how McDaniel’s campaign was able to connect the dots between Kelly and Cochran, but a local political blog on Friday evening posted the arrest report and in the comments section on Saturday morning many people began making the connection involving Rose Cochran.
On Saturday afternoon, McDaniel’s campaign again stressed their outrage and blamed Cochran’s campaign and the media for making political hay of the arrest.
"The McDaniel campaign found out about the break in when a local political blog posted about it at 11:40 p.m. last night. Senator McDaniel has denounced the break-in and called Senator Cochran to extend his condolences. It is unconscionable for the Cochran campaign and the liberal media to use the act of a sick individual to lob despicable accusations,” McDaniel spokesman Fritsch said in a statement.
At a later campaign event, Sojourner again refused to comment and directed a reporter to the campaign's previous statements.
Cochran canceled his remaining campaign events on Saturday to deal with the family matter.
Jessica Taylor contributed to this report.
—This piece was updated at 10:30 to reflect further details from McDaniel's campaign.