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Big Backers Fuel Down-and-Dirty Senate Race in Mississippi

Mississippi’s Republican senate primary has been full of drama and many of those instances have turned the eyes of the country to the state.

One reason is because the June 3 primary between six-term Sen. Thad Cochran and state Sen. Chris McDaniel is seen by many as a face-off between the GOP establishment and the Tea Party.

The latest chapter in the saga was blogger Clayton Kelly, 28, who has written posts in support of McDaniel, being arrested by authorities in Madison County for taking a photograph of Cochran’s wife, Rose, on Friday in her room at the nursing home where she’s suffering from dementia. Kelly was charged with exploiting a vulnerable adult.

“I’ve reached out to Senator Cochran directly to express my abhorrence for the reprehensible actions of this individual,” McDaniel said in a statement. “This criminal act is deeply offensive and my team and I categorically reject such appalling behavior.”

According to the statement, the campaign has no relationship with Kelly.

However, the Cochran campaign is questioning how McDaniel’s campaign manager, state Sen. Melanie Sojourner, apparently knew about the arrest before it hit the headlines.

Cochran spokesman Jordan Russell told a Jackson newspaper that the McDaniel campaign’s version of events was inconsistent.

“I think it would be interesting to know how (Sojourner) would hear about it before 7:45 a.m.,” he said.

“The McDaniel campaign found out about the break-in when a local political blog posted about it at 11:40 p.m. last night,” McDaniel spokesman Noel Fritch said. “Senator McDaniel has denounced the break-in and called Senator Cochran to extend his condolences. It is unconscionable for the Cochran campaign and the liberal media to use the act of a sick individual to lob despicable accusations.”

The campaign then kicked off the week by touting a Citizens United Political Victory Fund poll showing McDaniel ahead of Cochran by four points, and a Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund putting the lead at 7 percent.

McDaniel is on his second term in the state Senate and represents District 42 north of Hattiesburg.

The state senator from the Pine Belt will be aiming to unseat Cochran, who was the first Republican to win statewide election in 1978 and is now serving his sixth term in Washington. He previously served in the House for six years before he won a seat in the Senate and used to chair the Senate Appropriations Committee.

McDaniel is the Tea Party-favored candidate and serves as the chairman of the state Senate Elections Committee. Cochran currently serves as the ranking member on the Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee.

While Cochran has seniority, McDaniel thinks it is not that big of a benefit.

“It does make me question, what good is seniority if he’s not fighting for us, being courageous for us,” he told a local newspaper at a campaign stop in Ocean Springs. “Name a single fight Sen. Cochran has led. Name a single time he has raised his voice against this administration.”

McDaniel said a recent ad by the Cochran campaign depicting him as being weak on a pharmaceutical law intended to curb methamphetamine production was not true. He said he voted against the bill, however, because of the law’s failure in another state.

“I did the research,” he said. “I actually read the bill. I researched its effects. I even researched what Oregon did. Oregon passed something very similar. Guess what we found? The bill doesn’t work as advertised. What it does is inconvenience thousands of law-abiding citizens, forces their healthcare costs up, and forces the state’s Medicaid costs up.”

McDaniel said instead of going to a drugstore and buying the sinus medication pseudoephedrine, an ingredient used to make the drug, citizens would be forced to pay a higher price when purchasing the medicine from a doctor. It also didn’t reduce methamphetamine use in Oregon, he said.

Cochran has taken recent steps toward attempting to improve the economy in the state.

Cochran and his Republican Senate colleague Roger Wicker were two of the 56 sponsors of a bill that would permit the Keystone XL pipeline from Alberta, Canada, to the Gulf of Mexico region. In a news release, Cochran said the project would create 400,000 jobs.

McDaniel’s votes this year in the state Senate include a bill for sentencing reforms aimed at reducing the prison population, teacher pay raises and a ban on abortion after 20 weeks of gestation. He also voted against a ban on texting while driving.

During a news conference in Jackson, McDaniel told reporters that he still is looking to debate Cochran.

“The senator owes it to be in Mississippi,” said McDaniel. “He owes it to the people to be here, to be available, to hold town halls, and to be responsive to their questions. He owes it to the press, to meet with editorial boards, to have an open-ended conversation about his position for the country, and to defend his liberal record.”

Russell was at the conference and told The Clarion-Ledger the incumbent has more financial support from inside the state.

“It’s laughable he claims Sen. Cochran is not Mississippi enough when only 8 percent of (McDaniel’s) campaign donor support has come from inside Mississippi,” Russell said. “I challenge anyone to find another campaign in the history of Mississippi that had 92 percent of their donations come from outside the state.”

The website Opensecrets.org said both candidates have been receiving donations from out of state sources. It stated PACs made up nearly 80 percent of the $742,000 Cochran raised in 2013. Much of McDaniel’s campaign money came from the Club for Growth or Senate Conservatives Fund. Senate Conservatives Action, the super PAC arm of the Senate Conservatives Fund, received $1.5 million in large donations in 2013 and none of those were from Mississippi. Club for Growth Action, the super PAC of Club for Growth, spent $244,000 on ads supporting McDaniel last year. It only had one individual that gave $300 from Mississippi.

While the Republican who runs in November will be decided, the race for the seat continues as the winner will likely face Democrat Travis Childers, a former U.S. representative from the northeastern part of the state.

The Blue Dog Democrat served one term in Washington and was unseated by Tupelo Republican Alan Nunnelee.

Cochran recently has faced questions about whether he still resides in Mississippi and about making multiple taxpayer-funded trips with his executive assistant.

The senior senator’s executive assistant, Kay Webber, accompanied him on 33 trips over the past 12 years.

Also, the Tea Party Patriots Citizen Fund alleged that a $250,000 loan given to a super PAC backing Cochran was an illegal campaign contribution.

McDaniel faced criticism for not responding to the destruction from the tornadoes that struck the state in April. He was previously criticized for his response to a question about whether he would have voted on an emergency aid bill after Hurricane Katrina.