Politics & Policy

The Barbour Machine’s Mississippi Ad War

Haley Barbour (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Thad Cochran’s supporters bankrolled race-based attacks on Chris McDaniel.

Even in the bitterly fought primary battle between Mississippi senator Thad Cochran and his challenger, state senator Chris McDaniel, some of the radio ads that aired against McDaniel were considered especially incendiary. One charged that a McDaniel victory would set back “race relationships between blacks and whites and other ethnic groups.” Another warned that his campaign was part of an attempt to “roll back the hand of time.”

The political-action committee that aired the ads raised eyebrows from the outset.

For one thing, it had the same address, phone number, e-mail domain, and leader — the bishop Ronnie Crudup — as the Jackson-based New Horizon Church International. Crudup told Mississippi’s Clarion-Ledger earlier this month that he founded the PAC and raised $200,000: “Some money from the Republicans,” some from African Americans. “I raised money from a number of sources,” he said.

As it turns out, Crudup raised all of the $144,685 his PAC took in from exactly one source: Haley Barbour’s political machine. A report filed with the Federal Election Commission reveals that Mississippi Conservatives, the political-action committee founded by the former Mississippi governor and Republican National Committee chairman and run by his nephew, Henry, provided that money to Crudup’s group in four installments. The first, in the amount of $62,685, came on June 10, a week after the race was thrown into a runoff. Cochran and his allies were looking to increase voter turnout across the state, particularly among African Americans and Democrats who had not voted in the June 3 primary.

Particularly in an intra-Republican fight, in a party that has for years decried Democrats for playing racial politics, the ads are enraging the McDaniel camp and its tea-party supporters. Some national Republicans are starting to voice their concerns, too. 

Crudup did not return phone calls to his church seeking comment about the discrepancy between what he told the Clarion-Ledger and the FEC report. The group’s treasurer, Jacqueline Vann, who is also the treasurer of New Horizons Church, did not return an e-mail seeking comment.

Henry Barbour says Crudup has told him the report contains a “mistake” but that, regardless, Barbour’s committee was “clearly the material donor.” And he is not distancing himself from the inflammatory ads. In fact, he says they were deserved because McDaniel and his tea-party supporters criticized Cochran’s outreach to black voters and “tried to intimidate African Americans from voting.”

“That conduct was reprehensible and was not good for Mississippi or the Republican party,” Barbour says. “Many Mississippians, who were already disgusted by McDaniel’s race-baiting talk-radio-show comments, heard the code words that insinuated that African Americans were not welcome in the Republican primary.” He points in particular to their criticism of Cochran for working to bring “Democrats” to the polls. The chairwoman of the Tea Party Patriots, Jenny Beth Martin, accused the Cochran campaign of “begging” and “trolling” for Democratic votes. 

The Cochran camp attacked McDaniel during the campaign for controversial remarks he made while working as a radio talk-show host. Among other things, McDaniel said that if a law were passed requiring the payment of reparations to the descendants of slaves, he would refuse to pay taxes, and he referred to a Mexican woman as a “mamacita.” He also criticized “hip-hop culture,” saying that it “can’t stand education” and “can’t get control of itself.”

The day after Cochran’s victory, Haley Barbour said his group had nothing to do with the racial attacks on McDaniel and that support for Cochran among African Americans was spontaneous. “Within a week of the first primary some black churches in Hattiesburg started running ads on the radio in Hattiesburg by raising the money themselves,” he said. Barbour’s office said Thursday that he is on vacation and could not be reached for comment.

The latest revelations add another layer to a campaign that has taken a bizarre and nasty turn, with tea-party supporters arrested for illegally photographing Cochran’s bedridden wife in May and McDaniel’s continued refusal to concede to Cochran, who won the June 23 runoff by over 7,000 votes. McDaniel alleges that widespread voter fraud took place, and he petitioned the Mississippi supreme court to order the release of all election records. On Thursday, he announced that he would undertake a statewide “Truth and Justice” tour.

Some national Republicans are outraged by the use of race-based attacks in the Mississippi race. “This is a serious, serious problem, and it’s a problem for Henry Barbour and any other Republicans that got involved,” says Ed Martin, the chairman of the Missouri Republican Party. “There’s a line that’s been crossed in terms of conduct.”

Martin points to Republicans in his own state who weathered racial attacks from Democrats, from John Ashcroft, a former Missouri governor, to Jim Talent, who served the Show-Me State in the Senate. “I don’t know how that can be allowed in the Republican party,” Martin says. “If it is, we have no credibility, we have no moral standing.”

Earlier this month, before the source of the ads was known, Martin called on Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus to appoint a task force to find the source of the ads, as well as that of a racially incendiary robo-call that went to a number of African-American homes. The call in question accused the Tea Party of “disrespectful treatment of the country’s first African-American president.”

Barbour’s PAC paid an Atlanta-based Democratic consultant, Mitzi Bickers, $44,000 for “phone services.” Barbour previously told National Review Online that he paid Bickers far more for live calls than for robo-calls and that he had not heard the automated call that went out. Asked to provide a copy of it, he did not. 

Martin says Priebus has not responded to his request for an investigation, but that he has heard from several RNC members who want the chairman to address the ads at the committee’s annual meeting in August. Referring to Ronald Reagan’s “Eleventh Commandment” forbidding Republicans from speaking ill of each other, Martin says, “The Eleventh Commandment doesn’t mean you tolerate anything.”

— Eliana Johnson is a national reporter for National Review Online.

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