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Blogger's arrest shakes up Mississippi Republican primary

By Conor Finnegan, CNN
updated 1:33 PM EDT, Mon May 19, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Blogger who allegedly obtained an image of a senator's bedridden wife is arrested
  • Attorney tells newspaper the woman is Rose Cochran, wife of U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran
  • Cochran staffers imply Chris McDaniel staff knew of arrest before police report was released
  • Spokesman for McDaniel, who's opposing Cochran in primary, calls accusations "despicable"

(CNN) -- The arrest of a man who allegedly obtained an image of a senator's bedridden wife has shaken up an already intense Republican primary battle in Mississippi.

Political blogger Clayton Kelly was arrested Thursday, accused of exploiting a vulnerable adult and illegally and improperly obtaining a photo of her without her consent for his own benefit, according to the Madison Police Department.

Donald Clark, an attorney for Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Mississippi, and his wife, Rose, told The Clarion-Ledger newspaper that the woman in question is Rose, saying the Cochrans' "privacy and dignity have been violated." Rose Cochran suffers from dementia and has lived at St. Catherine's Village, the nursing home where Thursday's incident took place, for 14 years, according to the newspaper.

"I have been fortunate to have a wonderful family, and like so many families, we are deeply affected by my wife's serious, long-term illness, that we consider to be a very private family matter. We will continue doing everything we can to protect my wife's safety and security," said Cochran in a statement obtained by The Clarion-Ledger.

Police say Kelly broke into the facility and took the picture by Rose Cochran's bedside. The photo surfaced in a political attack ad on YouTube that aimed to smear Cochran, according to The Clarion-Ledger. It is unclear how the photo was used because the ad was removed within hours of being posted, according to the newspaper.

Kelly, a 28-year-old Madison, Mississippi, resident, has a host of social platforms that cover politics and often attacks the senior senator.

The video, like the majority of Kelly's material, supported Cochran's opponent in the Republican primary -- and that's where things get politically complicated.

Chris McDaniel is a lawyer, radio commentator and Mississippi state senator. With tea party support and endorsements from Club for Growth and Sarah Palin, he is challenging Cochran, and the race has been heated, with plenty of name-calling.

When the incident first came to light, McDaniel's campaign distanced the candidate from Kelly, saying he was neither a volunteer nor a member of the campaign.

"I've reached out to Sen. Cochran directly to express my abhorrence for the reprehensible actions of this individual. This criminal act is deeply offensive, and my team and I categorically reject such appalling behavior. My thoughts and prayers are with Sen. Cochran and his family," McDaniel said in a statement. "Politics is about the exchange of ideas and this type of action has no place in politics whatsoever and will not be tolerated."

Questions started to arise, however, when members of Cochran's staff suggested that a McDaniel staffer apologized to a Cochran staffer before the police report was even released, according to The Clarion-Ledger. The implication from Cochran's staff was clear: McDaniel's team must have some connection with Kelly if they knew about his arrest before the news broke.

McDaniel's team was quick to fire back.

"The McDaniel campaign found out about the break-in when a local political blog posted about it at 11:40 p.m. last night. Sen. McDaniel has denounced the break-in and called Sen. Cochran to extend his condolences. It is unconscionable for the Cochran campaign and the liberal media to use the act of a sick individual to lob despicable accusations," said Noel Fritsch, a campaign spokesman.

In a follow up email Sunday, Fritsch went further, pointing out that The Clarion-Ledger has updated its story multiple times and clarifying the time line of what the campaign knew when.

McDaniel campaign manager and Mississippi state Sen. Melanie Sojourner saw the post at around 1 a.m. Saturday and "was alarmed that it was likely Ms. Cochran who had been photographed based on the preponderance of evidence, including the name of the rest home and the comments on the blog," said Fritsch.

She notified McDaniel briefly at around 7:30 a.m., reached out to Cochran's campaign manager to condemn the alleged crime shortly afterward and briefed the candidate in full at around 10:30 a.m., according to Fritsch. At 10:49 a.m., the campaign released its statement.

So far, there has been no tangible evidence that links the campaign directly to Kelly.

Kelly is being held at Madison County Detention Center, with bond set at $100,000.

CNN's Kevin Bohn and Janet DiGiacomo contributed to this report.

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