From their beginnings, tea parties were the ultimate ‘outside’ Republican movement, and had great success at making the GOP toe a hard line. But the tea party insurgency seems a spent force now, having experienced a series of losses in Republican primaries around the country this Spring. The last, best hope for a tea party win against the Republican establishment lay in Mississippi, where state senator Chris McDaniel just pulled even in the polls with incumbent Thad Cochran thanks to weeks of speculative innuendo suggesting an improper relationship between Cochran and Kay Webber, his longtime staffer.
The crux of that rumor was the notion that Cochran was betraying his wife, who is speechless from dementia and living out her days in a nursing home, by having an affair with Webber. The only thing missing from this perfect smear was a shred of actual proof.
Breitbart.com was a particularly important source for the rumor. Writer Matthew Boyle began his coverage by noting that Cochran rents an apartment from his executive assistant. A week later, he wrote that she had accompanied the Senator to 42 different countries on 33 different trips over the three decades she has worked for him. There was nothing that directly suggested an improper relationship, and the expenditures in question were quite obviously legal, but the mere rumors were damaging and rampant enough that Cochran’s team fought back in the pages of the Jackson, Mississippi Clarion-Ledger, which mentioned the Breitbart stories in their reporting.
Cochran spokesman Jordan Russell and others say Webber, 76, has worked for the senator for 33 years, is a key employee and trusted advisor. Russell said here’s nothing unusual about her, or other assistants, traveling with Cochran or other senators. He said other Cochran staffers usually attend the trips as well. And, he said, the trips have frequently resulted in jobs for Mississippi.
“This is sexist,” Russell said. “Why are they questioning her qualifications? All members of Congress have aides that travel with them … If a male had been working with him for 33 years, would that be questioned?”
Russell said Webber, who has worked for Cochran since 1981 and makes about $140,000 a year, when traveling “attends official meetings and social functions when appropriate, relays information and action items back and forth to the senator’s other staff and helps the senator maintain his travel schedule.” He said she deals with constituent requests in D.C., staffs his Capitol office, organizes events for constituents and has other duties that belie the title executive assistant.
These attacks had another source: Mississippi tea party organizations. Saucy rumors of an affair have been most rampant in the tea party circles where McDaniel was popular, causing one observer to call it the dirtiest race in America. We have noted the very tight relationship between Breitbart News and Tea Party Patriots since May of 2013, and in fact TPP played a role in the whispering campaign, too. For example, TPP Communications Director Kevin Broughton told the Clarion-Ledger that the issue was “not about a relationship, this is about misuse of taxpayer funds” — a shrewd verbal tactic that kept the rumor in the air without actually having to own it, exactly like telling someone not to think of an elephant.
The race is also one of the most expensive in the country, with Citizens United, ForAmerica, and other conservative organizations spending millions to support McDaniel. Tea partiers saw a perfect opportunity to replace a conservative Republican with an even more-conservative one, and McDaniel practically stands to the right of the John Birch Society. Should he win the primary, McDaniel is almost ensured election in November, for the kind of public statements that ruined the Senate bids of Richard Mourdoch and Todd Akin in 2012 might reasonably do much less damage to McDaniel in deeply-red Mississippi.
But then Clayton Thomas Kelly was arrested last week for trespassing at a nursing home to take photographs of an unconscious and defenseless Rose Cochran. In fact this turns out to have been Kelly’s third attempt to obtain pictures of Rose, which he then used in a now-deleted YouTube video that advanced the allegations of an affair. Yesterday, three other men were charged with conspiring to commit the abuse, including attorney Mark Mayfield, vice chairman of the Mississippi Tea Party and an officer with the Central Mississippi Tea Party. But Kelly’s wife has given statements to the Clarion-Ledger that also seem to suggest the McDaniel campaign had a more direct role than they have admitted.
“Now, here’s where it gets tricky,” Tara Kelly said. “The video was up for about an hour and a half when Clayton received word, either through Facebook or the phone, I’m not sure, that ‘the big man,’ meaning Chris McDaniel, wanted it taken down. The exact words, I remember Clayton told me, were ‘the big man himself says take it down.’ Clayton was already going to take it down but did so at that time.”
(Clayton Kelly’s attorney Kevin) Camp, however, said his client took down the video when the responses were more about the photos of Rose Cochran than about the message of the video.
Tara Kelly said she and her husband both support McDaniel and “we’ve met him a couple of times, been to campaign events.”
But Kelly said some of the McDaniel campaign’s initial responses about when it knew about her husband’s video don’t seem right.
“It seems they lied,” Tara Kelly said. “They said they didn’t know anything about it, then another guy says that they did.”
Of course, there is still no firm evidence that McDaniel’s campaign is guilty of anything more than fumbling its responses to the unfolding scandal last weekend. But yesterday’s arrests are another indication that insurgent politics have driven the entire ‘dirty tricks’ campaign against Cochran, including Kelly’s surreptitious photography. Even without a direct connection to the McDaniel campaign, the scandal has apparently flipped onto those who sought to exploit it.
But what we find fascinating is that Breitbart News and TPP, which have contrived so many scandals together, have turned their powers of insinuation on a Republican this time — and he does not seem to like it much. Lois Lerner and Hillary Clinton know exactly how Thad Cochran feels today. If he wins his primary, it might very well foster a bipartisan understanding inside the Beltway of what both organizations really are.
Video: local news coverage of the contrived Kay Webber scandal prior to Clayton Thomas Kelly’s arrest.