What did Chris McDaniel’s campaign know about the Thad Cochran smear video, and when did they know it? That is the question everyone is asking this week about the unfolding scandal in Mississippi.

The insurgent tea party candidate’s campaign staff seems to have known about Clayton Thomas Kelly’s YouTube video even before Thad Cochran’s campaign did — so quickly, in fact, that during the two short hours that the video was online, McDaniel’s campaign manager emailed personnel to warn them about it. And Kellys’s wife claims that within that same timeframe, her husband was informed that “the big man himself” wanted the video removed.

So while there is yet no proof that McDaniel knew about the video in advance, the question remains how McDaniel’s campaign knew about it and reacted so fast. A clue may exist in the proximity to McDaniel of the three additional men arrested and charged last week in Mississippi.

John Mary, who took over as host of ‘The Right Side‘ radio show when McDaniel assumed political office, allegedly conspired with Kelly on Facebook as “John Bert,” his radio persona. According to the police report, Mary told Kelly that ‘Mark’ — probably a reference to Mississippi tea party officer Mark Mayfield, a volunteer for the McDaniel campaign — would have a fourth party contact Kelly with information about entering St. Catherine’s Village to obtain photos of Rose Cochran. Mayfield is not only close to McDaniel, he reportedly had a family member in the same facility at one time and was presumably familiar with the facility’s security arrangements.

Although he is not named in the police report, that fourth person is probably Rick Sager, who seems to be connected to a Twitter account that pushed the smear. Observers say that many tweets have been deleted from the @redalertms stream, which might explain those evidence tampering charges against Sager. The ‘Red Alert Mississippi‘ blog associated with the Twitter account is dedicated to anti-Cochran stories.

As we explained on Friday, rumors of an affair between incumbent US Senator Thad Cochran and his executive assistant had been making the rounds for weeks thanks to speculative pseudojournalism at Breitbart.com, where writer Matthew Boyle has provided an echo chamber for tea party gossip. The Red Alert blog offers many links to MississippiConservativeDaily.com, another anti-Cochran blog that reposts Breitbart.com stories about the Senator. It is not hard to see where the smear came from.

What are we to make of these fumbling cutouts and bumbling hatchet men? Aside from Breitbart, none of these blogs existed before February, including Kelly’s. They were all evidently created to support McDaniel’s primary challenge. So whose idea were they?

Indicating the importance of their role in the scandal, on Friday the Central Mississippi Tea Party, where Mayfield sits on the board of directors, felt obliged to tell its members to stop commenting on the matter in social media. Reflecting a no-holds barred approach, tea party groups continue buying attack ads that twist Cochran’s record. Thanks largely to these tea party attacks, the race is considered the dirtiest one in America.

Even if McDaniel wins this muddy contest, it is not clear that the party will accept him: National Republican Senatorial Campaign Chairman Jerry Moran refused to commit to endorsing him last week. And the case will not go to the grand jury until at least July, weeks after the primary race ends, meaning that even if McDaniel wins his campaign could be dogged by a trial all the way to November.

McDaniel keeps trying to deflect the scandal by attacking the timing of the arrests, suggesting that Cochran’s attorney wanted to affect early voting in Mississippi when he notified police on May 15. But given how his own campaign was right on top of the video from the moment it appeared, McDaniel is the one who must explain his timing. What did his staff know, and when did they know it? As Richard Nixon learned the hard way, the cover-up is always worse than the crime.

Video: radio host Paul Gallo grills Chris McDaniel on the timeline of events.