The Mississippi Senate GOP primary is heating up over the photos of Sen. Thad Cochran’s (R-Miss.) wife allegedly produced by a campaign supporter of his primary challenger, state Sen. Chris McDaniel.
The apparent supporter, Clayton Kelly, was arrested last Friday for allegedly sneaking into Rose Cochran’s nursing home and taking photographs of her, which he later posted in a video on his blog in an apparent hit on Cochran before taking them down.
Kelly is being held on a charge of exploitation of a vulnerable adult, and the Courier-Ledger is reporting he now faces a second charge of photographing someone without their consent, both felonies. His wife and his attorney have told the local press he’s being used as a political “pawn” in the race.
Who knew about the video, and when, has become a central focal point of the campaign as McDaniel and Cochran grapple for the upper hand in a contentious primary fight just two weeks out from Election Day.
McDaniel admitted on a local radio show on Tuesday that he was made aware of the video when it was posted to the man’s blog, on April 26, and that he told his campaign manager to get it taken down. McDaniel’s campaign has privately said that while he was aware of the video, he never saw it and didn’t know that it included the shots of Cochran’s wife.
Cochran’s campaign charged Wednesday that because McDaniel is an attorney, he has a legal responsibility to turn over knowledge of anything illegal to the police. Cochran’s attorneys themselves held onto the information about the video for weeks before contacting police.
Meanwhile, McDaniel issued an open letter to Cochran declaring he’ll no longer answer questions about the video issue and challenging the senator to debate.
"To date, you have refused to come home to Mississippi and debate," McDaniel wrote. "Until then, I will not engage either your campaign or the liberal media in their absurd witch hunt."
Cochran’s spokesman, Jordan Russell, said Wednesday the senator has no plans to debate McDaniel.
The controversy surrounding the video has roiled what was already a nasty race. Cochran is seen as the most vulnerable incumbent to a primary challenge this cycle, and his campaign and McDaniel’s have exchanged barbs back and forth for weeks as each called the other liars.
A poll from a pro-McDaniel group out this week showed the race to be within the margin of error. But the candidate’s handling of the video issue — he has, in multiple interviews, offered unclear or changing sequences of events — threatens to eat into his support.
And the Chamber of Commerce poured $100,000 into a pro-Cochran super PAC earlier this month, money that’s not likely to go to waste as Cochran’s allies look to boost him in the final stretch of the campaign.