McDaniel works to move past controversy

BROOKHAVEN, Miss. -- At a Saturday afternoon rally, state Sen. Chris McDaniel (R) told supporters they had the “opportunity to lead a conservative revival” by helping him oust longtime Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.).

While he rallied activists with an impassioned speech just outside a small market here, McDaniel made no mention of the controversy that had enveloped his campaign earlier that morning thanks to another apparent supporter. 

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Clayton Kelly, a 28 year-old conservative activist, was arrested Friday night for allegedly sneaking into the nursing room home of Cochran’s wife and taking video and photographs of her to use in a political hit on Cochran. While McDaniel decried the attacks, the two campaigns spent most of the day alleging the other was trying to use the incident for political gain as Cochran supporters questioned what McDaniel knew about Kelly and when he knew it. 

But the message McDaniel delivered to a friendlier crowd was the one he’s tried to build his underdog campaign on, he’s the Tea Party’s best hope this cycle to oust a sitting GOP senator. 

“[National conservative groups] see in you the opportunity to lead a conservative revival, a resurgence, one last line in the sand here in Mississippi to restore our country,” McDaniel said, as the crowd of about 30 munched on boiled peanuts and watermelon.

He added: “You can’t lead these charges from Maine. You can’t lead these charges from California or Massachusetts. You have to find people whose character is strong enough and courageous enough to lead the charge again to restore our Constitution. That happens right here in the great state of Mississippi.”

Cochran is facing the fight of his career from McDaniel, and with just over two weeks until primary day the race has become increasingly nasty, with both campaigns hammering the other candidate as a liar this past week. 

Shortly after the news of the incident involving Cochran’s wife broke, McDaniel told The Hill he didn’t know anything about the situation until confronted with Clarion-Ledger piece by a reporter. But controversy continued to swirl around the McDaniel campaign as a voicemail his campaign manager, Melanie Sojourn, left to Cochran’s campaign manager before the report came out raised questions about what McDaniel knew about the arrest and when.

Cochran canceled his remaining campaign schedule after news of the arrest broke. 

Both Sojourner and McDaniel declined to answer questions about the video or the apparent contradiction at the afternoon event, and McDaniel made no mention of it to the crowd. Sojourner pointed to the campaign’s earlier statements on the matter, and a staffer steered McDaniel back to his bus after the event, swatting away a reporter.

And though the candidate volleyed questions on everything from how he’d replace ObamaCare to what he’d do to improve veterans’ access to health care, no one in attendance mentioned the video.

Indeed, few in the audience said they had heard about the arrest, and those who were confronted with the details seemed willing to give McDaniel’s campaign the benefit of the doubt.

Jim Hampton, a 62-year-old retiree from Weston, Miss., hadn’t heard the news, but when given a summary said it was “ludicrous” to put any responsibility on McDaniel’s shoulders.

“You know, Chris can’t be responsible for everybody’s [actions],” he said. “Anytime you have a gathering like this, you’re going to have people show up that may not be playing with a full deck. That’s just life. And he can’t be held accountable for whatever anybody in the public does or fails to do.”

Rather than dwell on the day’s back and forth, in his brief remarks McDaniel hit on many of the themes that have made Cochran so vulnerable in deep red Mississippi this cycle: His more than four decades of service, as well as his votes to raise the debt limit and fund ObamaCare, among others.

“Name one fight, name one fight Senator Cochran has led against Barack Obama,” McDaniel challenged the crowd at one point.

When someone replied, “he voted against the health care bill,” McDaniel declared, “You know better than that.”

He promised to be a conservative cut from the same mold as Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.).

“You send me to Washington, D.C., those men will never have to fight alone again. A son of Mississippi will stand by them as we fight for true conservatism,” he said.

None of the three lawmakers have endorsed McDaniel, all having largely stayed out of incumbent primaries this cycle. But the challenger does have the backing of nearly every major national conservative group, a handful of whom have spent about $1.4 million boosting his campaign.

Cochran, however, has rallied the full force of the Mississippi political establishment behind him and has been given a boost in the campaign by an in-state super-PAC with ties to former Gov. Haley Barbour (R).

But that support gave McDaniel a rallying cry for the conservative crowd.

“You reach up, on June the 3rd, and you shake up the establishment, you remind them they work for us, and I promise you the whole country will listen to you again,” he said.

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