Mississippians are just days away from voting in what the Washington Post has called the nastiest primary in the country. The contentious race between long-time, U.S. Senator Thad Cochran and State Senator Chris McDaniel has been mired in name-calling and mud-slinging for months. And a recent scandal involving pictures of Cochran's bedridden wife may have changed the dynamics of the election.
The Chris McDaniel Senatorial Campaign has been in damage control for the past week and a half. It started after a campaign supporter was arrested for sneaking into the nursing home of Rose Cochran -- the ailing wife of Senator Thad Cochran -- and posting pictures of her on his conservative blog. Despite multiple protestations that his camp had nothing to do with the photos, McDaniel has been on the defensive. He says the Cochran campaign is using the incident to divert voters’ attention away from the race.
“Obviously, what happened was just terrible.” He says. “We condemned it, clearly condemned it. It was just wrong, but what matters in this campaign is the issues. That’s what matters. Senator Cochran does not want to talk about the issues. That’s why he will not debate me. He wants to talk about everything else in the world, but why he has been a liberal for 42 years.”
McDaniel is the Tea Party candidate who is part of the nation-wide movement to challenge the Republican establishment. Officials from both national and state Tea Party groups are working hard to steer the elections narrative away from the scandal and back to the issues. Jenny Beth Martin is the co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots.
“Our issues are the issues people are talking about around this country.” Martin says. “People are about personal freedom. They care about economic freedom. They want to know how they are going to get back to work, and we care about a debt free future. We don’t think its right that our children should be saddled with this debt that our generation has incurred.”
That's why McDaniel has been on a whirlwind tour of the state; trying to get his campaign back to that message. At the Movie Star Restaurant in Hattiesburg, Martha Orman sits waiting to meet the candidate. As a member of the Forrest and Lamar County Republican Women, Orman says the two-term State Senator and Jones County native is exactly what the country needs.
“I like the fact that he’s a good, Christian person.” says Orman. “I think he moves from the heart [sic], and I think he has a lot of good ideas. He’s got a fire in his belly, and I think we need somebody like that. That’s going to go in and change things, and stand up for us.”
Orman is not alone. Supporters are touting McDaniel's record as a state senator. They say his work to undermine Obamacare, to put prayer back into schools and making sure Mississippi doesn't become a sanctuary for illegal immigrants makes him a true constitutional conservative. McDaniel says it's his adherence to the nation's founding document that steers his political agenda.
“It’s the part of the party that values the constitution above all.” said McDaniel. “Our adherence is to that document as originally intended. We’re originalists like Scalia and Thomas and Alito. So, being a constitutionalist also means that we recognize that the Federal Government only has limited powers. All the other powers belong to the people and the states, respectively.”
Those are traits he believes his opponent, long-time Senator Thad Cochran, doesn't have; even going so far as to say that Cochran is too liberal to represent Mississippians.
“I happen to like Sen. Cochran, but he hasn’t been a conservative voice for Mississippi.” he says. “The people of this state cannot name a single fight he’s led against Barack Obama. We know he has voted to increase the debt ceiling 20 times. 13 times in just the last eight years to the tune of $8 trillion. He has voted to expand the size and scope of government at every chance he’s gotten. That is not the Republican way. That is not the Conservative way.”
McDaniel has also taken issue with Cochran's 41 years in Washington; something he says he'll change by introducing term limit legislation.
“The first bill I’ll introduce will be to impose term limits on all members of Congress.” McDaniel says. “Likewise we’ll do everything in our power to begin to restore individual liberties for Americans. That includes economic liberties. You all pay too much in taxes. American corporations are taxed too much. We have to return that capital back to the people, where it belongs. So they can, in turn, enjoy their lives.”
Polls show that McDaniel has garnered a large amount of support around the state; putting him in a statistical dead-heat with Cochran before the photo scandal erupted. Connor Dowling is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Mississippi.
“McDaniel has been able to close a good portion of the gap that existed between him and Senator Cochran three to five months ago.” Dowling says. “Some recent polls have come out suggesting that he even might have some slight leads among some substantive voters. So I think it’s becoming a pretty-tight race.”
However, try as he might to refocus voters' attentions back to the issues, the photo scandal is continuing to plague the McDaniel campaign. Three additional arrests last Thursday, in connection with the photos of Rose Cochran, and ongoing miscommunications between campaign officials about who knew what and when, has McDaniel struggling to rise above the scandal's narrative. Marty Wiseman, a political analyst formerly with the John C. Stennis Institute for Government at Mississippi State University, says McDaniel's campaign is essentially in free fall.
“It’s such a huge distraction with so little time left that he’s having to spend a whole lot of time denying that he had anything to do with that.” says Wiseman “McDaniel’s campaign might as well shut it down and save some money to get home on that one.”
Yet, supporters like Jeff Hobson of Hattiesburg, are remaining firmly entrenched in McDaniel’s camp. He says the scandal hasn’t swayed his vote.
“Not at all.” He says. “It’s just one reprobate out there being stupid.”
It is almost certain whoever wins the Republican Senate race next week will go on to represent Mississippi.