Wednesday, May 28, 2014 | 10:30 a.m.
JACKSON, Miss. — Mississippi's Senate primary has morphed from a high-profile proxy for the national fight between the tea party and establishment Republicans into an ad war driven by clandestine images of Sen. Thad Cochran's ailing wife in an online video.
State Sen. Chris McDaniel, who aims to deliver a rare victory for the tea party this midterm election year primary season, unveiled a statewide ad Tuesday accusing Cochran of "outrageous" attacks.
Cochran was campaigning in Wednesday.
McDaniel's campaign describes the spot as a "six-figure" ad buy. It comes after the Cochran campaign launched its own ad last week that shows a McDaniel supporter — conservative Mississippi blogger Clayton Kelly — who's charged in the criminal case over a photo of 72-year-old Rose Cochran. She has lived in a nursing home the past 13 years with dementia.
A police investigator has said the image of Rose Cochran appeared at the end of a video alleging Cochran was involved in an inappropriate relationship with another woman. Cochran campaign spokesman Jordan Russell has said any suggestion the senator is in such a relationship is "outrageous and offensive and the dirtiest form of politics."
In the 30-second TV spot from the Cochran campaign, a narrator says: "It's the worst. Chris McDaniel supporter charged with a felony for posting video of Sen. Thad Cochran's wife in a nursing home." The Cochran ad urges Mississippians to "rise up and say no to dirty politics and yes to our strong conservative leader Thad Cochran."
Kelly and three other men, including an attorney who's a Central Mississippi Tea Party board member, face felony charges in what police describe as a conspiracy to illegally photograph a vulnerable adult in a place where there's an expectation of privacy. A police investigator said Rose Cochran was photographed on Easter Sunday.
District Attorney Michael Guest has said it's possible others could be charged in the case.
Cochran and McDaniel meet in a primary Tuesday that has garnered national attention as McDaniel, a tea party favorite who promises to serve in the mold of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, tries to unseat Cochran, a former Senate Appropriations Committee chairman who was elected to the House in 1972 and the Senate in 1978.
McDaniel, 41, had been running on the notion that Cochran is a "gentleman" and a "fine Mississippian," but one who simply hasn't been conservative enough over four decades of rising national debt and expanding government. However, in an open letter to Cochran last week, McDaniel said he was reconsidering his respect for Cochran because he believed the incumbent's campaign had resorted to "shameful slander" against him.
McDaniel has endorsements from several Mississippi tea party groups as well as national groups, including FreedomWorks, Senate Conservatives Fund, Tea Party Express and Club for Growth.
Cochran, 76, hasn't had a serious challenge in three decades and has made few campaign stops in Mississippi in recent weeks — partly, his campaign says, because of his work in Washington. Cochran appeared at a Memorial Day event Monday in Vicksburg and has stops scheduled Wednesday and Thursday in southern Mississippi. He also spoke last Friday to a business group in the Jackson area, telling reporters outside that it was "unfortunate" and "sort of bizarre" that somebody photographed his ailing wife. The Cochrans' two grown children released a statement last week saying their father has been devoted to their mother as her health has deteriorated.
On April 25, Cochran did a six-minute interview with The Associated Press between campaign stops in northern Mississippi. Standing outside a tire warehouse in Batesville, where he had spent about an hour shaking hands and talking with workers, Cochran said he's in good health and intends to serve the full six-year term if re-elected. He also defended his record on federal spending and said he has declined invitations to debate McDaniel because he believes the challenger misrepresents his Washington record.
"I disagree with the criticism that my opponent is making of my service in the Senate," Cochran told the AP. "But I think I've acquitted myself with due diligence and have performed in a way that reflects credit on our state."
Cochran has blanketed the state with ads promoting himself as a consistent conservative. His most recent ad notes endorsements from the National Rifle Association, National Right to Life and Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, a tea party ally.
Through May 14, Cochran had spent $3 million on his campaign, an impressive sum for primary race in a state with about 3 million residents and nearly 1.9 million registered voters. McDaniel had spent just more than $1 million. But both men have benefited from a deluge of outside spending expected to top $8 million by the time polls open Tuesday.
The matchup gives the hard right another opportunity to do what it hasn't been able to do this year: knock off a sitting Republican senator. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell easily dispatched a tea party opponent in Kentucky. Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts is a favorite over challenger Milton Wolf. Challengers to Tennessee's Lamar Alexander and South Carolina's Lindsey Graham have struggled to gain traction.
McDaniel's latest ad hits on the theme of his battle against the establishment. "Mississippians deserve a senator who will repeal Obamacare entirely, limit government spending and stand up for working families," he says, later concluding, "I approved this message, because after 40 years we deserve better from Washington."
Yet, the images of Cochran's wife threaten to define the race.
McDaniel has said repeatedly that his campaign had nothing to do with the photos. He called the violation of Rose Cochran's privacy "reprehensible."
McDaniel told the AP on May 15 that Cochran has a liberal record with votes to increase the debt ceiling and to confirm Chuck Hagel as defense secretary and John Kerry as secretary of state.
"These are the votes of a senator who's been in Washington so long, he's forgotten his Mississippi conservative values," McDaniel said.
Bill Barrow reported from Atlanta.