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Mississippi's GOP Senate primary is a slugfest

Mississippi's GOP Senate primary has taken a dark turn in recent days.
Mississippi Senator McDaniel smiles during a town hall meeting in Ocean Springs
Mississippi Senator Chris McDaniel smiles during a town hall meeting in Ocean Springs, Miss. on March 18, 2014.

Tea party challengers to Republican senators have failed in Kentucky and Texas, and conservative insurgents are limping to the finish line in South Carolina and Kansas. In Mississippi, however, polls suggest state Sen. Chris McDaniel is the movement’s last best shot at a victory over an establishment incumbent in Sen. Thad Cochran.

It just won’t be pretty.

The June 3 Mississippi contest had already been a brutal slugfest for months heading the last week of action. GOP incumbents have been taking more proactive steps to define their challengers and shore up their right flank in 2014, and Cochran’s allies wasted no time in tying McDaniel to events with white supremacist and neo-Confederate groups. Conservative groups are pouring money into ads attacking Cochran as an entrenched politician who has served too long. Cochran, in turn, is getting plenty of outside support from establishment super PACs.

Things moved from typical political jockeying to something darker in recent days, however. Pro-McDaniel blogger Clayton Kelly was arrested last week for allegedly breaking into a nursing home to film Cochran’s sick wife, who reportedly suffers from dementia, for an online attack video.

McDaniel’s campaign immediately condemned the incident, and nothing has come out tying the campaign to the break-in -- but the subsequent firestorm has dominated the campaign since it broke in the local press. 

Then things got worse: three more people were arrested on Thursday in connection with the break-in, including a state tea party leader with longstanding ties to McDaniel and an activist who had, according to The Clarion-Ledger, regularly co-hosted a radio show with McDaniel.

A lone blogger was bad enough, but suddenly law enforcement authorities were alleging a conspiracy that included prominent conservatives who knew McDaniel personally.

McDaniel’s campaign offered a confusing timeline of when aides learned of the break-in, the subsequent video, and when McDaniel himself was informed of the incident. At one point, Cochran’s campaign released a voice mail of McDaniel’s campaign manager Melanie Sojourner calling them before the story broke to express their outrage and deny involvement. This came off as odd given that the next morning McDaniel told reporters he hadn’t even heard of the break-in. McDaniel’s campaign later said he had not yet been “fully briefed” on what happened.

A district attorney working the case shot down a report late Thursday that the McDaniel campaign had been “cleared” of involvement, but there is still nothing out there linking team McDaniel to it.

Cochran’s campaign and its supporters at the National Republican Senatorial Committee have been working hard to highlight the McDaniel campaign's contradictions and connections in an effort to blur the distinctions between the opposing campaign and its indicted supporters. In doing so, Cochran’s team is walking a fine line that hints at nefarious dealings but never directly accuses McDaniel of any specific role in the nursing home plot.

“It’s an ongoing investigation, and the McDaniel campaign’s story has changed every day, sometimes multiple times per day,” Cochran campaign spokesman Jordan Russell told msnbc in an e-mail. “With the latest revelation about McDaniel’s former radio show co-host being arrested, I think that raises even more questions.” 

Asked about the current investigation, a McDaniel spokesman referred msnbc to an open letter by McDaniel released Wednesday condemning Cochran for “slander.”

“Senator, if you are inclined to cast aspersions on my honor and integrity then I call upon you to do it to my face in a debate forum,” McDaniel wrote.

A Polling Company survey of the race sponsored by the pro-McDaniel Citizens United Political Victory Fund shortly before the break-in story put McDaniel up 43-39. A Harper poll in April gave Cochran a 52-35 edge over McDaniel.