Tea Partier Chris McDaniel has taken $800 in donations from Carl Ford, a former lawyer for Sam Bowers, the imperial wizard of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan who died in prison after being convicted of the murder of civil rights activist Vernon Dahmer. Ford also is active in the League of the South, a neo-Confederate organization that has been labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, and was active in the Klan in Laurel, Mississippi, in the early 1960s.
In an interview with The Daily Beast, Ford, who still practices in Laurel, McDaniel’s hometown, said he was supporting the Tea Party challenger facing six-term Republican incumbent Thad Cochran in a June 24 runoff because of McDaniel’s opposition to what Ford called “immigration reform, so-called.” In contrast, Ford said Cochran was siding with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and supporting “knocking the wall down on the borders and advocating bringing more illegals in.” The septuagenarian lawyer also condemned Michael Bloomberg’s donations to Mississippi Conservative PAC, a super PAC backing Cochran, because of the former New York mayor’s support for gun control. “Don’t think we want a nanny state,” Ford added. “I’m too old and too fat to drink too much sody pop and still don’t want nobody telling me how much to drink.”
It’s not the first time McDaniel, whose campaign declined to comment on the record to The Daily Beast, has been linked to figures with neo-Confederate ties. The Mississippi state senator has spoken to gatherings of the Sons of Confederate Veterans in the past and made racially charged comments on a talk radio show that he hosted from 2004 to 2007.
But McDaniel is also far from the only political candidate whom Ford has donated to in recent years. He has written checks to former Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), as well as Rep. Alan Nunnelee (R-MS). Ford also donated to the 2006 Senate campaign of Virginia Democrat Jim Webb. The lawyer was even a Cochran booster at one time: “I supported Thad in his first campaign in 1978, a while back.”
In an interview with The Daily Beast, Jordan Russell, a spokesman for the Cochran campaign, condemned Ford’s links to the McDaniel campaign. “I think it’s a troubling pattern of Chris McDaniel that should trouble all Republicans, really, because it’s not the type of thing you want on the national stage,” Russell said. “Thad Cochran has always represented the best of Mississippi, and I don’t think you say that about Chris McDaniel and the company he keeps.”
The McDaniel campaign has already attracted national headlines for a series of bizarre incidents. The first came in May, when a pro-McDaniel blogger broke into Cochran’s wife’s nursing home and filmed her. The blogger, “Constitutional” Clayton Kelly, has since been arrested, along with an active McDaniel volunteer and the Mississippi state senator’s former radio cohost.
The weirdness was compounded when several McDaniel supporters, including one staff member, were found at 3:30 a.m. after the first primary June 3 locked inside a county courthouse where election officials had been tallying the vote. Although no criminal charges will be filed, the incident raised eyebrows.
Cochran’s campaign, for its part, hasn’t been free of issues. The 76-year-old senator, who has not faced a competitive election since the Carter administration, has refused to debate McDaniel, and his campaign has shielded him from the press. Recently, he played dumb with a Fox News reporter who asked about House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s primary loss in Virginia last week. While some used the incident to raise questions about Cochran’s age, his campaign said he simply was being snippy after being asked the same question repeatedly on the campaign trail.
The June 24 runoff is seen as a key showdown between the Tea Party and Republican establishment. Cochran is a courtly former Senate Appropriations chairman who brags about the money he has steered to his home state, while McDaniel is a brash young lawyer who is skeptical of federal aid to the Gulf Coast, even post-Katrina. After the GOP primary ended with the two candidates under the 50 percent threshold needed to prevent a runoff, even more national money has flooded the race. Meanwhile, Democrats are cautiously optimistic that a McDaniel win could give them an opportunity to pick up a Senate seat in deep-red Mississippi.
The racial politics of the Magnolia State is invariably complex and hard to parse. The legacy of the Civil War and the civil rights movement still looms large, and Cochran even has a painting of Jefferson Davis hanging on the wall of his Senate office. Despite the farce of the nursing home break-in and the ongoing battle between the Establishment and the Tea Party, Ford’s support for McDaniel serves as a reminder that far more complex politics lie just beneath the surface in Mississippi.