HATTIESBURG — U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran is in the fight of his political life in a brutal, too-personal Republican primary that has drawn his bedridden wife into the melee and resulted in criminal charges against some of his opponent’s supporters.
But watching the 36-year Senate veteran as he campaigns ahead of Tuesday’s election, you’d never know it.
For Cochran, the first rule of his re-election bid is not to mention the great unpleasantness.
Let others bring it up.
Let GOP rival Chris McDaniel try to change the subject from the nursing home episode that has taken over the campaign in the final stretch.
An announcer in a Cochran campaign ad tries to make the case against the senator’s opponent, identifying the four men charged in a plot to illegally photograph Rose Cochran as McDaniel supporters and saying: “Rise up and say, ‘no’ to dirty politics.”
Cochran’s allies speak up, too.
“I was heartbroken and very thankful that Rose was not aware of what was going on,” Connie Cochran, who is married to the senator’s brother, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview Thursday.
“She has always been such a gracious, intelligent, vivacious person, but she always shied away from the public. … To have this happen to her, it made me very upset. She doesn’t deserve this.”
Even in such circumstances, the 76-year-old senator doesn’t yell or pound podiums. His campaign events don’t have the air of pep rallies but tend to be smallish gatherings where the former Senate Appropriations Committee chairman talks in long but grammatically correct sentences — paragraphs, not 10-second sound bites — about how he has won for Mississippi billions of federal dollars for military bases, agriculture and other services.
It’s exactly the sort of appeal, from precisely the sort of Washington power broker, that McDaniel and other tea party-styled politicians are aiming to upend in the November elections.
Cochran is their last chance at ousting a Republican incumbent that they see as too willing to compromise and too chummy with big-money interests that drive politics.
Tea party-inspired efforts to win GOP Senate contests in North Carolina, Georgia and Kentucky failed earlier this year as the party establishment showered money on candidates such as U.S. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis and U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston in Georgia.
Cochran, too, is the establishment’s choice. McDaniel spent months building name recognition with dozens of town hall meetings.
But in recent weeks, the narrative of the contest abruptly shifted from policy to scandal after police in Madison arrested four McDaniel supporters and charged them with illegally conspiring to photograph the senator’s wife in the nursing home where she has lived since 2001 with dementia.
Police investigators say Rose Cochran was photographed on Easter Sunday and her image was included in an anti-Cochran political video posted briefly online six days later.
The four men charged in the photo incident are McDaniel supporters.
One, attorney Mark Mayfield of Ridgeland, is a Central Mississippi Tea Party board member who has raised campaign cash for McDaniel. Another, John Mary of Hattiesburg, took over hosting a conservative talk radio show after McDaniel left that job.
Clayton Kelly and Richard Sager posted pro-McDaniel items on their Facebook pages. Kelly is a conservative political blogger who’s accused of photographing Rose Cochran.
During questioning in court, Madison police investigator Vicki Currie said May 22 that the four conspired to use images of Rose Cochran to advance allegations Thad Cochran was having an inappropriate relationship. McDaniel and some of his supporters have raised questions about Cochran bringing a female aide on a large number of official, taxpayer-funded trips overseas.
Rose Cochran has lost the ability speak and is receiving hospice care, according to her family. Thad Cochran’s campaign has said he is not involved in an inappropriate relationship. The Cochrans’ two grown children say their father has been devoted to their mother throughout her decline in health.
McDaniel said he had nothing to do with the plot and has called it “reprehensible.” His campaign also accuses Cochran of trying to exploit the situation for sympathy and political advantage.
As the primary loomed, McDaniel brought in reinforcements to try to change the subject.
“Those are distractions to take your eye off the ball,” 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin told a crowd Friday at Jones County Junior college in McDaniel’s hometown. “Chris McDaniel knows that the status quo has got to go.”
Former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., held a rally for McDaniel on Saturday.
Don Hartness, 53, is a military veteran who describes himself as a “gun-toting, tea party guy” and worked with McDaniel to push an open-carry gun bill that became law last year. Hartness said he voted for Cochran “back in the early days,” but won’t do it again.
“He’s gotten away from conservative values,” Hartness said.
Melvin Tingle, a 79-year-old retired state wildlife department employee, watched Thursday when McDaniel’s campaign bus pulled up to a gas station in the small town of Union and the candidate shook hands with a half-dozen people.
“This is a weird election,” Tingle said after McDaniel left, adding that he’s disgusted by both Republicans and their television ads. Still, he said: “I’m going to vote for the old man.” Of Cochran, he added: “I’ve always liked him and had great trust in him.”
It’s not that Cochran doesn’t mention his wife on the campaign trail. Speaking to about 75 people in Hattiesburg, he reminisced about being recruited to run for the U.S. House in 1972.
“I remember going home and telling my wife, Rose, I said, ‘What would you think about being married to a United States congressman?'” Cochran said. “And she said, ‘I don’t know. Which one?'”
His quiet, deadpan delivery drew laughter from the crowd.