With a bitter primary campaign between Tea Party-backed state Sen. Chris McDaniel and incumbent Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS) veering towards the gutter, McDaniel used a Thursday morning press conference to try to pull it back, embracing the reform platform of Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) and focusing on policy.
With speculation and rumors swirling about Cochran, McDaniel demanded the GOP stop being the “party of no” and backed the Utah Republican’s welfare reform, education, energy and right to work reform policy proposals. “We call that a conservative reform agenda and that’s I’ll pushing when I’m elected to Washington, D.C.,” McDaniel said.
Following his remarks, the Cochran campaign sent an aide out to the microphones to challenge McDaniel, calling him a “liar.” It was an aggressive and risky move by Cochran’s campaign, and the press conference may come to be viewed as a key turning point in the campaign.
“Right now, thousands of Mississippians are without the wealth and the jobs that they need,” McDaniel said. “They matter. The poor matter. The middle class matters. We have to exercise strong policies so they can break outside the cycle of poverty, so the middle class can have opportunities beyond simply being stagnated and uncertain about their future job prospects.”
Lee is “on the right track” because “he’s intelligent, he’s articulate and he knows precisely what works to grow the economy,” McDaniel said.
That McDaniel is backing Lee’s conservative reform agenda is not surprising; he’s very publicly backed other major conservative initiatives like the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) pledge against amnesty. What was perhaps unexpected is that McDaniel pulled it off at this press conference on Thursday morning on the State Capitol steps in Jackson, MS. Rather than staying in the gutter where both sides have been for a while, McDaniel used the political cover of a few new Cochran setbacks to launch his ideas forward–and question why Cochran won’t discuss those conservative ideas with him.
The race has been bitter, with both sides–McDaniel’s and Cochran’s–firing away at each other for months. Cochran’s team has ripped McDaniel over tort reform and education policy, while McDaniel’s team has painted Cochran as an out-of-touch Washington, D.C., elitist. Cochran’s camp calls McDaniel a “trial lawyer” who would abandon Mississippi in a time of need like Hurricane Katrina or the recent tornadoes in Tupelo, while McDaniel’s team frames Cochran as a liberal Republican who voted to fund Obamacare, for amnesty and who has never fought any real battle against President Obama.
Meanwhile, just this past couple weeks, several reports from Breitbart News have driven local news coverage and discussion from both campaigns. The story from Breitbart News that Sen. Cochran Cochran listed his official address on official documents as a townhouse on Capitol Hill that his executive assistant Kay Webber owns rather a cabin of his in northern Mississippi kicked off the criticism. And just this week, a follow-up report from Breitbart News about how Cochran took Webber on 33 taxpayer-funded trips to 42 foreign countries went viral through Mississippi. A Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund press conference led the nightly newscasts on television throughout the state and stories ran top-of-the-fold front page on newspapers statewide.
“This isn’t about a relationship, this is about the misuse of taxpayer funds,” Kevin Broughton of the Tea Party Patriots group said during the press conference.
It wouldn’t have been hard for McDaniel to get up at the Thursday press conference, which he had scheduled since at least the previous evening, and tear into Cochran over these burgeoning campaign scandals. But he opted for a different play: kick it off positive, and use the opportunity of Cochran’s latest mishaps to force a turnover in momentum on the trail.
McDaniel wrapped his criticisms of Cochran in calls for the incumbent to debate him.
“Instead of hiding behind attack ads, it’s time for Sen. Cochran to come home, be around the people and debate me–and let’s talk about those attack ads, how they’re untruthful and how they’re misleading and how they’re distorting my record because they are,” McDaniel said. “And I think that’s only fair that he will come home and have that debate.”
McDaniel did address the extensive travel story, but only when asked about it by a reporter. “He has traveled extensively,” McDaniel said in response to a press question. “And as a taxpayer I have concerns about that. And I’m pleased to say that the state of Mississippi–the taxpayers of this state–they have not paid for me to travel across the country. They have not paid for me to travel across the world since I’ve been a state senator. And I’m proud of that. It’s not the place for the taxpayers of this country to pay for travel expenses or vacations in exotic locales around the world.”
When a different reporter asked in a followup, if elected would he travel like Cochran did on congressional delegation trips, McDaniel said no. “The only time I would attend a Senate trip is if it’s legitimate Senate business,” he said.
Perhaps most interesting about Thursday’s activities was that during the press conference, as the Jackson Clarion-Ledger wrote, Cochran’s campaign communications director Jordan Russell “hung at the periphery” waiting to take the stage to “rebut” McDaniel’s comments.
When Russell spoke, his comments in response to McDaniel sounded like he was shielding off a series of smears–rather than responding to the content of McDaniel’s embrace of Lee’s conservative reforms during the press conference.
“For Chris McDaniel to stand up there and lie about him [Cochran], it’s just really sad. It’s the sign of a desperate campaign,” Russell said, according to audio of his comments obtained by Breitbart News. “And the reason he’s doing that is because he doesn’t want to run on his record. He doesn’t want to talk about his record.”
Reporters grilled Russell, asking him why Cochran wasn’t there to talk to them about this stuff.
“Senator Cochran’s in Washington doing his job today,” Russell responded. “Senator Cochran doesn’t skip votes like Chris McDaniel does. Chris McDaniel was the fifth most truant member of the Senate–him and his campaign manager over there. They skip votes to campaign. Sen. Cochran’s not going to do that. He’s up there doing his job for Mississippi. That town hall you referenced on Tuesday night? Senate’s in session. He’s working. The senate is in Washington. He can’t be in two places at once.”
Reporters asked Russell why Cochran won’t debate McDaniel, either, and he replied that the campaign is choosing not to put the senator in a risky situation. “Why would we put Sen. Cochran on stage with a liar?” Russell said. “We’re just not going to do that. We’re not going to dignify that.”
A local reporter followed that debate refusal comment up: “So you’re calling Chris McDaniel a liar?”
“Absolutely,” Russell responded. “He lies about his record and he lies about Sen. Cochran’s record, like a trial lawyer does.”
A minute or so later, Russell was asked what internal polls are showing, as public polling on the race has thus far been scant. Instead of expressing confidence, he downplayed polling–not the most typical trait of candidates winning an election.
“We don’t pay attention to polls, we work our campaign plan and we’ve got great support because Sen. Cochran works hard for Mississippi,” Russell said. “And he’s always been there for them and he’ll always be there for them.”
McDaniel didn’t let Russell have the last word: he came back out of the state capitol after Russell’s counter presser to confidently then called out Cochran for not showing up in Mississippi to call make the allegations Russell made against him himself.
“Those are really strong words,” McDaniel said. “Sen. Cochran is supposed to be a 42 year incumbent who’s a gentleman. I’m shocked that his staff would behave like that. I will say this: It’s a shame that he has to send his staffer down here to debate me. He should be here, talking to me and making those allegations if necessary.”