A scandal sideshow could threaten the GOP’s hold on Sen. Thad Cochran’s (R-Miss.) Senate seat no matter who makes it through Tuesday’s hard-fought Republican primary.
The bitter final month of the primary has focused largely on personal issues and the salacious scandal surrounding a McDaniel supporter’s alleged photographing of Cochran’s wife in her nursing room home. That threatens to leave the Republicans fractured and the eventual nominee crippled in the general election against a centrist Democrat, former Rep. Travis Childers.
“We’ve had nasty and personal primaries before, but we haven’t had incidents like we had in this apparent conspiracy,” said Mississippi Republican Party Chairman Joe Nosef.
“To be honest, I think party unity’s gonna be just as much a concern either way the election comes out, for sure.”
Neither of the candidates themselves will talk about the scandal to the press, but everyone else in Mississippi is.
The local blogger was arrested two weeks ago Friday, and three men charged with conspiracy related to the scheme were arrested the next week. The scandal has gotten heavy play in local and national media, and Cochran’s campaign has run ads tying McDaniel to the three alleged conspirators in the scheme, while McDaniel responded with an ad of his own decrying the attacks as “outrageous.”
And while each candidate has been sticking to their traditional stump speech on the trail, they’ve been facing continued questions on the issue.
Nosef said the photographs have had a notable impact on the interest from Mississippi voters in the race, but it was hard to say who would benefit from that jump.
“I think it’s increased the intensity, at least from the anecdotal evidence I’ve seen on the ground, of supporters on both sides,” he said.
Cochran’s team has been pushing the issue as another example of what they see as McDaniel’s penchant for misleading voters and being evasive.
“It’s certainly damaged him, and we feel like we have the momentum going into Tuesday,” Cochran spokesman Jordan Russell argued. “I think that what happened and the unfolding investigation has given a lot of people pause and reason to question what exactly would they be getting from Chris McDaniel, who surrounds himself with people like that.”
There’s a chance Cochran could get a boost, if the situation wins him some sympathy and emotional investment from apathetic supporters, or if it turns off undecided voters and those looking for a Cochran alternative who aren’t yet sold on McDaniel.
Those are the blocs McDaniel needs to woo to win the nomination, and the most recent automated survey of the race, from GOP firm Harper Polling, indicated he’s not quite there yet, down five points to Cochran with likely GOP primary voters.But the poll also showed 15 percent of likely GOP primary voters still undecided on the race, less than a week out from Election Day.
According to observers, there’s also the chance that Cochran’s allies could overplay their hand on the issue, if their attack ads and press conferences suggesting McDaniel knew something about the video turn undecideds off.
In the Harper survey, slightly more voters see him positively than negatively, and even though he’s underwater with those who are familiar with the scandal, 56 percent of respondents overall said the scandal would either have no impact on their vote or make them more likely to back McDaniel.
McDaniel supporters privately admit the two weeks after the video scandal broke were rough for the candidate. But they believe the tide — and the news cycle — has shifted in his favor over the past week.
Jeppie Barbour, the brother of former GOP Gov. Haley Barbour and father of Austin and Henry, both of whom are actively supporting Cochran, broke with the rest of his family this week and endorsed McDaniel.
Sarah Palin held a rally for McDaniel on Friday, and Rick Santorum hit the coast on Saturday for another event.
Mississippi voters, in the final weeks of the race, will hear Palin on their radios and see Santorum on their televisions, touting McDaniel.
But they’ll also hear former Sen. Trent Lott (R ) Gov. Phil Bryant (R ) on their radios making the same pitch for Cochran.
The battle on the airwaves reflects the one on the ground between the Tea Party and establishment wings, and while Nosef expressed cautious optimism the party would come together, but admitted it’ll be tough.
“Certainly it’s going to be hard [to unify], and people aren’t gonna get on the same page on Wednesday. It’s going to be a process, but I think we’ll work through it,” he said.
National Republicans have actively pushed the McDaniel accusations, National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Jerry Moran (Kan.) demurred when asked if they would back McDaniel if he wins.
Democrats hope and Republicans fear that a McDaniel win is Democrats’ best opportunity to pick up the seat because of political baggage ranging from his racially-charged comments as a talk-radio show host to his record on earmarks.
But Cochran could come out of the primary wounded as well.
Multiple Mississippi Republicans privately mused over whether the speculation over his personal relationships sparked by the photo scandal would gain legs now that it’s gone mainstream. Others mentioned the negative coverage he’s received for ducking the press.
Childers is a strong recruit for Democrats, but he’d still face an uphill battle in deep-red Mississippi no matter who wins the primary. The fundamentals of the state still favor Republicans, and even with favorable conditions during the 2008 Senate race Democrats were unsuccessful. They hope to re-create a scenario like in Indiana in 2012 where another centrist congressman, Joe Donnelly, was able to upset a damaged Richard Mourdock.
But the fundamentals of the Republican Party may be changing.
Kevin Broughton, spokesman for the Tea Party Patriots, which is backing McDaniel, lauded the primary contest itself, regardless of the eventual winner, as a seismic event for Mississippi politics.
“I think the landscape of the Republican Party in Mississippi, no matter the winner on Tuesday, has been altered significantly,” he said.