A top GOP operative calls it “a sign of how truly ugly this campaign is getting.”
A Mississippi political activist was arrested on Friday, accused of breaking into the nursing home of Senator Thad Cochran’s wife, Rose, and photographing her for a video that sources say was posted briefly to YouTube and then removed.
According to the Jackson-based Clarion-Ledger, which reported the story on Saturday, Cochran’s wife lived in the nursing home, St. Catherine’s Village, since 2000, and suffers from progressive dementia. She is now bedridden.
Police identified the suspect as 28-year-old Clayton Thomas Kelly, the author of a political blog, Constitutional Clayton, where he has vocalized his opposition to Cochran and his support for Cochran’s primary challenger, state senator Chris McDaniel. He wrote about meeting McDaniel at an event — “His poise and grammar level were of high intellect and he spoke like an open book,” Kelly said – and posted a picture of them together on his blog and Facebook page.
McDaniel condemned Kelly’s actions, saying in a statement he had reached out to Cochran to express his ”abhorrence for the reprehensible actions of this individual.”
“This criminal act is deeply offensive and my team and I categorically reject such appalling behavior. My thoughts and prayers are with Senator Cochran and his family,” McDaniel said in the statement. “Politics is about the exchange of ideas and this type of action has no place in politics whatsoever and will not be tolerated.”
The race between Cochran, 76, and McDaniel, 42, has gotten increasingly nasty in recent weeks as McDaniel, the most serious challenger to any incumbent Republican this year, has sought to seize a come-from-behind victory in the June 3 primary.
Cochran, a six-term senator, hasn’t faced a competitive challenger in years, and the primary is the first serious test that pits a Republican incumbent against a tea-party challenger: McDaniel is backed by the Senate Conservatives Fund, the Club for Growth, the Madison Project, the American Conservative Union, and several tea-party groups. Former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour and his political allies have rallied to support Cochran.
Over the past couple of weeks, McDaniel’s campaign has raised questions about Cochran’s residency and whether he still lives or spends time in Mississippi; about his frequent travel with an executive assistant; and about the origins of a $250,000 loan to a pro-Cochran super PAC.
The latest poll, conducted in early April, had McDaniel trailing Cochran by 17 points, 52 to 35 percent.
UPDATE: The Cochran campaign is now questioning when, exactly, McDaniel campaign manager Melanie Sojourner learned about the nursing home break-in, implying that it was before news of Kelly’s arrest became public and attempting to tie his actions back to the state senator’s campaign operation. McDaniel’s coalition director told the Clarion-Ledger that he was aware of Kelly’s video, which featured the illegally obtained photograph of Rose Cochran, before Kelly’s arrest, but a campaign spokesman and McDaniel himself reiterated that Kelly had no ties to the campaign itself.
UPDATE II: According to the Washington Examiner’s David Drucker, who is on the ground in Mississippi, Cochran has canceled all of his Saturday campaign appearances out of concerns for his wife’s privacy. McDaniel is campaigning at a spring festival in Hernando, Miss.
UPDATE III: McDaniel campaign spokesman Noel Fritsch issued a statement denouncing the Cochran campaign and the media for its attempts to link it to the break-in. “The McDaniel campaign found out about the break in when a local political blog posted about it at 11:40 p.m. last night,” Fritsch said. “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.” Indeed, the Mississippi blog Jackson Jambalaya posted the police report on Friday evening, which contains the name of the arrestee as well as the nursing home. Locals weighed in on the blog’s comments section throughout the night, before the Clarion-Ledger reported the story, speculating even before the victim’s name was released that politics were at play.