WASHINGTON — The feud between the Republican establishment and the Tea Party has engendered more whimpers than war so far. The notable exception is in Mississippi, where the campaign to unseat Senator Thad Cochran has become the nastiest, and most personal, in the nation.
Supporters of the senator’s Republican primary opponent, Chris McDaniel, have charged that Cochran has shown favoritism toward his longtime executive assistant, Kay Webber, even as his wife, Rose, is confined to a nursing home, suffering from dementia.
The accusations took a bizarre turn this month when a conservative blogger, Clayton Thomas Kelly, was arrested on charges of entering the facility on April 20 to photograph the bedridden Rose Cochran without her permission. Three others were arrested last week, and all four face criminal charges related to the episode.
Thad Cochran’s campaign responded by making a political commercial using footage of Kelly in handcuffs. Over foreboding music, the narrator says:
“It’s the worst: A Chris McDaniel supporter charged with a felony for posting video of Senator Thad Cochran’s wife in a nursing home. . . Rise up and say ‘no’ to dirty politics.’’
Mississippi politics has always had a rough edge under the veneer of Southern gentility, but this race has reached another level. Cochran is a politician in the old-school tradition, with a courtly manner and, through his seniority, a high-powered ability to deliver federal dollars to one of the nation’s poorest states. In his 2008 reelection campaign, he ran unopposed in the primary.
Now he is being tested as never before by McDaniel, a state senator with strong Tea Party backing who is asking voters to send the six-term senator into involuntary retirement in the primary Tuesday.
The race represents the last chance for Tea Party activists to topple an incumbent, and McDaniel’s supporters have aggressively scoured Cochran’s record and distributed their findings to numerous news media outlets — leaning heavily on his relationship with Webber as part of a larger case that the senator is skating on probity’s edge.
They point to an unusual arrangement whereby Cochran rents the basement apartment in a $1.6 million row house owned by Webber that is a short walk from the Capitol.
He has also rented the first floor of her house to hold two fund-raisers.
McDaniel supporters have combed through Senate travel records to find that Webber, despite having no particular area of expertise, had taken 28 trips to 45 countries with Cochran, on top of 39 trips to Mississippi, from 2011 to 2013, all at taxpayer expense.
Cochran campaign officials say there is nothing unusual about the senator’s connections to his aide, who, like Cochran, is 76 and has worked on Capitol Hill since the 1970s.
Webber’s travel with the senator is “strictly professional” and “is perfectly appropriate as a senior staff member,” said Jordan Russell, a spokesman for the Cochran campaign.
The senator declined to be interviewed.
But some ethics experts say the charges may have merit.
“It’s this Gordian knot of conflicts and potential conflicts,” said Bill Allison, editorial director of the Sunlight Foundation, which tracks ethics issues in Washington. “It’s difficult to begin even seeing how to begin to untangle it.”
Cleta Mitchell, a campaign finance lawyer who is working for a super PAC that is supporting McDaniel, objected to Webber’s accompanying the senator on so many trips.
“Bottom line: The taxpayers are subsidizing Sen. Cochran and his ‘assistant’ to accompany him all over the world — which is contrary to the law and Senate ethics rules,” Mitchell said in an e-mail.
It is unusual for an executive assistant to travel so frequently. The trips, to such places as Azerbaijan and Paris, have also included other senators and their aides, typically staffers with specific expertise in appropriations, foreign aid, defense, or diplomacy. On these trips, Webber also received a total of about $115,000 in standard daily stipend payments and some transportation costs.
In addition to criticizing the trips, the McDaniel campaign has focused on the senator’s residency, reprising an issue that has undermined other long-serving incumbents, who were criticized for becoming a part of the Washington elite and losing touch with constituents back home.
That has created a battle of documents, with McDaniel’s supporters offering up trust documents, a Federal Election Commission filing, and a property appraisal to show that Cochran had identified the Capitol Hill row house as his primary residence. Cochran’s campaign put forth other records to show that the senator had listed his home in Oxford, Miss., as his residence.
Cochran, elected to the House in 1972, arrived in Washington in an era when members of Congress commonly moved to the capital. The senator and his wife raised their two children in Alexandria, Va., without protest from Mississippi voters, who reelected him five times, by wide margins. But nowadays, hostility toward Washington among some Republican activists has made where the senator lives a campaign issue.