In early 2014, long-time U.S. Senator Thad Cochran faced the most formidable challenge to his incumbency since his first election to the Senate in 1978. Mississippi state Senator Chris McDaniel, a darling of the Tea Party, quoted Ronald Reagan and the founding fathers until he had Cochran well outflanked to the political right. Polls showed the race in a dead heat. The McDaniel campaign’s chiding of Cochran for refusing to debate gained traction as voters questioned whether the aging Cochran was running for re-election one too many times.
A handful of McDaniel supporters decided it was time to play a wild card by accusing Cochran of abandoning his bedridden wife, Rose Cochran, by pursuing a relationship with his long-time aide, Kay Webber. Rose Cochran, suffering from dementia, had for 13 years lived in a nursing home just north of capital city Jackson.
The Clarion Ledger, a Jackson newspaper, is reporting on the story. Mark Mayfield, a prominent Jackson attorney and McDaniel supporter, was approached due to the fact that his mother had recently passed away at the Alzheimer’s unit where Rose Cochran was residing. McDaniel supporter John Mary, using an alias identity on Facebook, posted a message to Mayfield, suggesting that Mayfield photograph Mrs. Cochran at the Alzheimer’s unit. Mayfield said he would not take the photograph but that he could get someone else into the nursing home.
That someone proved to be aspiring political blogger, Clayton Kelly, a 29-year-old Tea Party activist and McDaniel advocate who referred to himself as “Constitutional Clayton.” John Mary, using his Facebook alias, posted to Kelly, “What we are going to do will be EXPLOSIVE. The other side will be hunting for ANY connection to you.”
Prosecutors say that Mayfield instructed Kelly as to how to get into the facility and locate Rose Cochran’s room. Surveillance video at the nursing home, according to Madison County prosecutors, shows that on April 20, 2014, a guard allowed Kelly to enter the nursing home. District attorney Michael Guest and assistant district attorney Bryan Buckley describe the video as showing Kelly pretending to be talking on his phone and texting as he makes his way to the wing where Ross Cochran lived. According to prosecutors, the video shows Kelly, after waiting for a nurse to leave the hallway, entering Cochran’s room and exiting soon after. He then is seen photographing Rose Cochran’s nameplate outside her door before he leaves.
Within a week, “Constitutional Clayton” posted a video titled, “Does U.S. Senator Thad Cochran Have a Mistress?” The voice on the video criticizes Cochran for moving to the left politically and states that Chris McDaniel “was in diapers when Thad Cochran came to Washington.” The video then shows a picture of Senator Cochran with aide Kay Webber, followed by a still shot of Rose Cochran lying unconscious in her bed at the Alzheimer’s unit. Kelly’s narration on the video states, “This is Rose Cochran today. . . . We are calling on [Senator Cochran] to resign your campaign immediately.” Kelly ends the video with a disclaimer that the video’s production is not associated with the McDaniel campaign.
Reaction to the video was swift and extremely negative. Prosecutors moved quickly to present evidence to a grand jury, which indicted Mark Mayfield, Clayton Kelly, John Mary, and Richard Sager as having conspired to break into the Alzheimer's unit. The indictment included charges of attempted burglary and burglary. Within a month, Mayfield committed suicide.
As for the campaign, the Kelly video proved to be the watershed event from which the McDaniel campaign never recovered its pre-video momentum. The election was razor-thin with Cochran wining a run-off against McDaniel by fewer than 8,000 votes. McDaniel challenged the election results, but the challenge was ultimately dismissed for having been filed too late.
As prosecutors prepared the state’s case for trial, in December 2014, Rose Cochran passed away. In May 2015, Senator Cochran married Kay Webber.
Kelly’s defense was set for a string of adverse events. Co-conspirators Sager and Mary entered guilty pleas, receiving pretrial diversion that included an obligation to cooperate in the ongoing investigation. As his June 2015 trial approached, Kelly pursued a motion to dismiss his indictment on First Amendment grounds. Circuit Court Judge William Chapman III heard argument on the motion and denied the motion from the bench. On the eve of the June 15 trial, Kelly accepted an offer to plead guilty, and he was sentenced to two-and-a-half years.
Since the sentencing, the state’s evidence has been partially released to the press. The looming question has been whether the evidence establishes a link to Cochran’s challenger, Chris McDaniel. Assistant district attorney Bryan Buckley stated, however: “'Based upon all available evidence, to include Facebook messages, phone records and videos, we feel confident all those who were actively involved were indicted and handled by the justice system. We consider the matter closed, unless we find new evidence.”
—Michael T. Dawkins, Baker Donelson, Jackson, MS