Thad Cochran’s fight: Up close and all too personal

POPLARVILLE, Miss. – The ads tie Sen. Thad Cochran’s primary challenger to a stomach-turning crime: a grave violation of privacy in the nursing home where the senator’s stricken wife resides. In blaring language, they warn voters that the “McDaniel campaign scandal” is spreading, enveloping several men with direct ties to the ladder-climbing state lawmaker seeking to topple Cochran.

But in the final days of Mississippi’s Republican Senate primary, you won’t hear any of that from Cochran himself.

Hounded by national conservative groups seeking his defeat and grappling with an outlandish breach of personal and legal boundaries, Cochran is greeting voters with a soft smile and nary a mention of his hard-right opponent for the GOP nomination. A Washington institution portrayed as out of touch by his party’s right flank, Cochran has quickly become a sentimental favorite for many Mississippians thanks to his opponents’ overreach.

Cochran, 76, is said to be privately shaken up by the intrusion into Rose Cochran’s living quarters at the St. Catherine’s Village nursing home in Madison County. The incident came to light in mid-May, when a local conservative blogger was charged with breaking into the facility and taking a photograph of her; Clayton Kelly allegedly used the photo as part of a video attacking Thad Cochran’s conduct in Washington. The senator has returned to St. Catherine’s Village multiple times since the intrusion to visit with his wife, who has long suffered from progressive dementia.

Three more men have since been arrested in the scheme, including a leader of the Mississippi Tea Party and an activist who has appeared on talk radio with Chris McDaniel, Cochran’s opponent. The 41-year-old state senator has denied any connection to the break-in and accused Cochran’s campaign of politicizing a criminal investigation.

Cochran doesn’t mention the incident on the stump. He doesn’t say McDaniel’s name in public remarks. He gives no outward indication of being hurt or angry about the breach of his wife’s residence. He did mention Rose at a Wednesday event in Hattiesburg, recalling how she reacted when he first raised the idea of running for Congress back in 1972.

“I said, ‘What would you think about being married to a United States congressman?’ And she said, ‘I don’t know, which one?’” he said, drawing a round of laughter from several dozen supporters at a campaign office housed in a strip mall.

In an interview a few hours later, the six-term senator described his reaction when he first heard the news of the nursing home break-in. “I was surprised. It sounded kind of bizarre to me. I couldn’t imagine why they would want to be taking photographs of Rose,” Cochran said. “What we did in terms of response was to advise the local law enforcement authorities – the sheriff’s office and city police in the area – and then let them decide what their responsibilities were.”

As Cochran tells the story, that’s where his role in the whole uproar ended. He chuckles at the observation that he never mentions McDaniel to voters: “That’s right. I let him get his own publicity.”

Yet even without Cochran’s help on the trail, the event known universally as “the nursing home incident” has overwhelmed the closing weeks of his race against McDaniel. An already-harsh race has grown intensely personal. While Cochran isn’t free and clear yet, McDaniel supporters fear that the sensational story has blocked the challenger from delivering a solid closing message, and perhaps curdled McDaniel’s appeal among voters who might be inclined to support a more strident ideologue but like Cochran on a personal level.

Even before the nursing-home incursion, McDaniel had veered into dangerous territory with not-so-veiled insinuations about Cochran’s health (“I pray for health, I hope he’s fine,” he told a national reporter in February) and sharp attacks on the senator’s fiscal record and habit of traveling internationally on the taxpayer dime (“I don’t like it when Michelle Obama does it. I don’t like it when Sen. Cochran does it,” McDaniel said on a radio program this month.)

Playing political hardball against a genial septuagenarian is risky under any circumstances, but all the more so against an incumbent like Cochran, an earnest, grandfatherly type who has been known for years as “Gentleman Thad.”

McDaniel’s campaign did not make him available for an interview Wednesday. In a TV ad released this week, McDaniel called the Cochran campaign’s TV ads on the Madison County investigation “outrageous.”