Instead, Clayton Kelly made a decision that roiled the year’s tightest race between an incumbent Republican and an avatar of the Tea Party. McDaniel, a state senator and former talk show host, entered the race in October 2013, after the Club for Growth had already gone on the air trashing Cochran, and after he’d huddled with conservative PACs that wanted fresh Republican-In-Name-Only scalps. He outraised and outcampaigned a senator who’d won his first congressional campaign a few months after McDaniel was born. The first polling on the race gave Cochran a single-digit lead; the last poll, paid for by one of the many McDaniel-endorsing conservative groups, gives a slight edge to the challenger.
That poll was taken after the Cochran campaign and media outlets from Mother Jones to the Wall Street Journal “vetted” McDaniel. The candidate had endured weeks of stories about his radio days, and Republican primary voters did not clutch their pearls and flee after they learned McDaniel had criticized rap culture.
The only problem: The poll was also taken before the arrest of Constitutional Clayton. It was also taken before police charged three more activists, one of them the vice chairman of the Mississippi Tea Party, Mark Mayfield.
“He didn’t even know them when he was sitting in the same cell as them,” says Tara Kelly. “My personal opinion is they were just using him as the fall guy. He didn’t know them other than over Facebook.”
And the poll was definitely taken before Cochran’s campaign put out an ad that splayed Clayton Kelly’s face across TV screens, called him (correctly) “a Chris McDaniel supporter charged with a felony,” and asked voters to rise up and say no to dirty politics.
“Aren’t they exploiting his picture as well?” asks Tara Kelly. “That’s what I think, but that’s just my opinion as his wife.”
The race will be decided, by people who don’t know any of these activists, don’t know or want to know what happened at the nursing home, and don’t know why the whole imbroglio began. Why was Cochran a target in the first place? On Tuesday, after talking to Kelly, I stop by the biweekly meeting of the Central Mississippi Tea Party, where there’ll be a lecture on Obamacare and a huddle about how to beat the senator.
“One way to measure how successful we are is by securing votes for our candidate,” says Janis Lane, the president of the group. “Chris McDaniel is the man of the hour. He is chosen for a time such as this. He is our current-day Esther. He is what we need in Mississippi to make a change in the political process of this state.”