The nastiest primary in the country is in Mississippi. And it’s only getting uglier.

We're "in the middle of a race the likes of which Mississippi has never seen," declared Sen. Thad Cochran's campaign spokesman Jordan Russell on Wednesday.

He's right.


U.S. Senate candidate Chris McDaniel (R). (Timothy D. Easley/AP)

The Republican primary pitting the long-serving Cochran against tea party-backed state Sen. Chris McDaniel has quickly become the nastiest race in the country -- by leaps and bounds. There are no signs that will change with just 13 days left until the election.

What once looked like a generational and ideological spat has become a full-fledged political war in which both sides have tried to impugn the motives of the other.

McDaniel accused Cochran's campaign of "shameful slander." Cochran's campaign accused McDaniel of changing their story, again and again. Oh, and that was just in the past few hours.

The latest flash point is the arrest of a blogger last week on allegations he filmed Cochran's bedridden wife and posted an image of her in an online video. Cochran's wife, Rose, has been staying at a nursing home since 2000. She suffers from dementia.

McDaniel's camp insists he had nothing to do with the blogger, who has posted items favorable to McDaniel and critical of Cochran. Cochran's camp has raised the timeline of the McDaniel's camp's reaction in an effort to cast doubts about what McDaniel's team knew and when they knew it. (For a great timeline of what happened when, check out this post from Philip Bump.)

The media has also intensely scrutinized McDaniel's story. Just check out this contentious radio interview from earlier this week:

Cochran has not escaped scrutiny, either. He's been asked why his campaign waited weeks before altering authorities once it knew about the existence of the video, which has since been taken down.

Back and forth it has gone. McDaniel used his sharpest language yet Wednesday, declaring in an open letter than until Cochran debates him, he will "not engage either your campaign or the liberal media in their absurd witch hunt." Cochran's camp suggested it was not interested.

As if it all wasn't enough, there are also reports about an anti-Cochran push poll and a loan given to pro-Cochran group that have drawn scrutiny.

The national stakes have only intensified the race. National groups like the Club for Growth and the Senate Conservatives Fund have rallied behind McDaniel amid a tough cycle for tea party challengers. Tea party-backed candidates suffered painful losses in Kentucky and Idaho on Tuesday. The movement is running out of places to scores wins this cycle, and Mississippi is arguably its last best chance.

There has been limited polling on the race, making it hard to read who has the upper hand. But it's clear neither side's allies have ceded the contest just yet.

The arrest of the blogger, Clayton Thomas Kelly, was bad news for McDaniel, even if he had absolutely nothing to do with it. It didn't help McDnaiel that Kelly's wife told local reporters Kelly had received word after putting up his video that "'the big man,' meaning Chris McDaniel, wanted it taken down."

But the Cochran team risks overplaying its hand by insisting on pressing the matter daily and lobbing accusations at McDaniel. Most voters would probably have been naturally sympathetic to the violation of privacy Cochran and his wife had to endure. But now that it's become such a politically-charged issue, they may see it differently.

In retrospect, this race was always destined to be nasty. McDaniel jumped in last fall before Cochran even announced he was running for another term, upstaging him at a time when he was pondering retirement. But he didn't retire. And ever since, Mississippi Republicans have witnessed an increasingly contentious contest.

All of which is to say, buckle up. It's going to be a bumpy ride toward June 3.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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