Much has been made of the battle between the Republican “establishment” and the Tea Party in the 2014 primary election cycle, particularly the GOP primary campaigns for the Senate races in North Carolina and Nebraska.
That battle may be coming to a climax this week in Mississippi, where attorney and two-term state senator Chris McDaniel is riding endorsements from Tea Party groups like the Club For Growth, Senate Conservatives Fund, Citizens United, and Tea Party Express into a primary showdown with Thad Cochran, that state’s senior — he’s been in office forty-one years — U.S. senator.
McDaniel offers some credentials to Mississippi voters. Law enforcement groups like the Mississippi Law Enforcement Association and the Mississippi Highway Patrol named him Legislator of the Year during his time in the state senate. He’s spearheaded a class action suit challenging the constitutionality of the Obamacare individual mandate. And his conservative radio talk show was broadcast nationwide on the ABC Radio Network. McDaniel is young (he’s 41), well-spoken, attractive, married to a former Miss Mississippi, and unabashedly conservative — he co-founded and chairs the Mississippi Senate Conservative Coalition.
But as a Senate candidate, McDaniel’s campaign has a fledgling quality to it. As of the May 14 reporting deadline, McDaniel had raised $1.27 million and spent all but $238,000 of it, compared to Cochran’s $3.67 million raised and $3.48 million spent. And three of his supporters now face jail time for an uncommonly stupid conspiracy to illegally film Cochran’s wife in her bed at a Mississippi nursing home.
That caper cast doubt on the seriousness and professionalism of the McDaniel camp, and it dampened momentum for his insurgent campaign despite a lack of evidence the candidate had anything to do with it.
But why would McDaniel allies want to take pictures of Rose Cochran in the nursing home where she’s lived for the past thirteen years? Perhaps because Cochran lives with another woman in Washington, D.C.
That other woman is Kay Webber, Cochran’s executive assistant. She has appeared with the senator on multiple occasions, including thirty-three taxpayer-funded trips to forty-two countries since 2002, in circumstances which present their relationship as something more than that of employer-employee. Webber is routinely by Cochran’s side at gala social events, and the frequent photos taken of the two, combined with the senator’s peculiar D.C. residential arrangements, call their relationship into question.
Webber rents a “basement apartment” in her $1.7 million Washington house to Cochran for $2,400 per month, according to the Jackson Clarion-Ledger. Records show that the home has no apartment — in the basement or elsewhere. How Webber was able to purchase the mansion on a Senate staffer’s salary of $72,000 is another interesting question, one which RedState’s Erick Erickson delved into last week with fascinating results:
According to individuals who have reviewed the transaction, when Webber purchased the house, she had a co-signor on the home who was a donor to Cochran and who listed her own occupation as homemaker. So a congressional staffer making $72,000.00 and a homemaker who donated to Cochran went in together and bought a million-dollar home.
That homemaker’s husband, William Shows, was the head of the Pearl River Valley electric cooperative. Electric cooperatives have been the number one source of campaign contributions to Thad Cochran over the years. Sources tell me the homemaker’s husband also sat on the board of the bank that helped finance the transaction.
That would be Trustmark Bank, which is currently having FEC trouble over a campaign loan to benefit Cochran.
Likewise, Trustmark’s CEO, Richard Hickson, contributed to Cochran’s campaign in 2000, 2001, and 2007. In 2008, Trustmark got $215 million in TARP funding from the federal government.
Now, here’s the real kicker. Ms. Webber and Mrs. Shows bought the house for $1 million with, it appears, $200,000.00 down and a $800,000.00 mortgage in 2001. At the time Ms. Webber’s congressional salary was less than $100,000.00 a year and Mrs. Shows, who only had a 1% interest in the home according to individuals who have seen the paperwork, listed her occupation as a homemaker. A year after the purchase, Mrs. Shows gave Ms. Webber her interest in the home making Ms. Webber the sole owner.
It doesn’t help that Webber has offered the house, an “exquisite 1878 Victorian home,” as a venue for fundraisers for Democrats such as Sheila Jackson-Lee and Charlie Rangel.
Is there an untoward relationship between Cochran and Webber? Frankly, it’s probably nobody’s business. But the sketchy finances, taxpayer-funded junkets, and cozy political-class fetes belie something that recommends McDaniel as the newest GOP senatorial nominee: namely, that Thad Cochran ceased to be of Mississippi quite some time ago and is now wholly owned by the Beltway elite.
It should be remembered that Kay Webber isn’t the first Cochran staffer whose relationship with the boss drew attention. The previous Cochran aide to become infamous was Ann Copland, who in 2009 pled guilty to trading legislative favors for perks like event tickets with notorious Washington lobbyist and convicted racketeer Jack Abramoff.
The Abramoff connection is another reminder for Mississippi voters that Cochran’s real address isn’t his cabin in Oxford or his phantom apartment at Webber’s crib. It’s on K Street.
In fact, in a Washington Post interview over the weekend, Cochran said he had intended to leave the Senate after this current term, but he changed his mind:
Cochran said he is running because others encouraged him to seek another term. “I thought it was time for me to retire,” he said. “I thought I’d served long enough. ...But people were saying, what are we going to do without you?”
Who would find Cochran so indispensable? Hardly Mississippi conservatives. After all, the American Conservative Union rated him a 60 for 2013 and a 52 for 2012 — worse than accused RINOs Lindsey Graham and Bob Corker. Club For Growth rates him a 56 for 2013; among Republicans only Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski are worse. Freedomworks had him as a 41 last year; again, only ahead of Collins and Murkowski.
The Post article also contained an eye-opening quote from the senator himself. Asked about Obamacare and the necessity of its repeal, he unloaded this bit of Beltway wisdom:
“I think we need to monitor any federal programs that provide services and assistance to people who need help, and this is an example of an important effort by the federal government to help make health care available, accessible and affordable,” he said. “We have probably one of the best health-care systems in the country, in the world, and we’ll need to continue to work to make sure it meets the expectations and needs of the American people. I’m glad to be involved in that effort.”
Cochran’s aides said he was confused by the question and he was actually talking about the VA scandal. But Cochran voted for cloture back in the fall of 2013 which allowed Harry Reid to fund Obamacare on a party-line vote, and which FreedomWorks called the worst vote of his career.
No. Cochran’s value is as an appropriator—and as a potential chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee should the GOP retake the Senate this fall. An article reporting on a recent Cochran campaign event in Pascagoula, the home of a shipyard building Navy vessels, quotes the new president's endorsement of Cochran in that capacity:
"Those of us who understand this business know clearly that even with great facilities like Ingalls, even with the most highly skilled, most motivated and patriotic shipbuilders that we have here, the facts are that shipbuilding programs do not get their start in shipyards, not even good ones like Ingalls," St. Pe said.
"They get their start in the Congress of the United States in the appropriations and authorization committees in the Senate. So the great success that Ingalls has achieved for 75 years and the fact that it's positioned today to do great things in the future, a great deal of that credit goes to the four decades of extraordinary leadership that Thad Cochran has provided the state of Mississippi and this nation in terms of strong support for national defense and more specifically, for Navy shipbuilding projects. That's a message that can't be ignored in this election."
Ultimately, the value proposition Cochran offers to Mississippi Republican voters is pork and more pork. He won’t be a reliable conservative vote, his conduct will make them queasy, and he likely won’t even finish his current term. But in the meantime, he can shower the state with new courthouses, free swag for farmers, contracts for ships, and other goodies.
McDaniel might do the exact same thing. But he at least offers the chance for something better. Here’s hoping, for the sake of hygiene if nothing else, that he pulls a surprise this week.