JACKSON, Miss. -- The Rose Cochran photo scandal has been quicksand for the Chris McDaniel Senate campaign since the first news of it broke a little over a week ago.
And as the clock ticks down to the June 3 Republican Senate primary in Mississippi, the question is whether McDaniel can pull out of it.
At first the mess was partially McDaniel's own doing: He and his campaign couldn't get their stories straight. They offered conflicting, shifting accounts of whether they knew anything about McDaniel supporter Clayton Kelly or the video hit piece he did on Sen. Thad Cochran. It showed photos of Cochran's bedridden wife in a nursing home and claimed the 76-year old incumbent Senator has a mistress — which Cochran denies — while his wife languishes.
Still, once the campaign firmed up its story, there was plausible deniability of any real knowledge of or relationship with a wannabe young politico blogger from Pearl.
That changed Thursday. With the arrests of three alleged co-conspirators, the case got worse for the McDaniel camp.
One is a lawyer, ardent McDaniel supporter and campaign volunteer — and a top leader of tea party groups that are the foundation of McDaniel's base, supplying the campaign with foot soldiers and social media warriors.
Another is a longtime McDaniel supporter who has co-hosted a radio show with McDaniel and replaced him on the program when McDaniel was elected to the state Senate.
The third is a respected teacher and soccer coach from McDaniel's home county.
While authorities say there's been no evidence connecting the case to a campaign proper, McDaniel would be hard put to say he doesn't know at least a couple of the players and know them well.
And they allegedly were working on an extreme variation of a theme the McDaniel camp was pushing against Cochran.
In essence, the McDaniel loyalists' dirty "October surprise" for Cochran backfired and has provided the Cochran campaign with one of its own, and a national-scandal doozy in the 11th hour at that.
It's a case that will impact not just the upcoming GOP primary but likely Mississippi Republican politics — perhaps even national politics — in the long run.
The Republican "establishment" is likely to use it as a case study to try to chill the tea party movement.
The timing couldn't have been worse for the McDaniel campaign. It appeared to be gaining momentum as it shifted from being one of the best chances for a tea party-backed challenger to defeat a GOP incumbent in the mid-terms to the only chance. After recent primary defeats in other states, national tea party groups were focusing more of their efforts and money here.
And it came as McDaniel was focused on expanding his base beyond the tea party faithful, working to pick up independents and undecideds.
The McDaniel campaign only briefly went into "we're so sorry this happened, Senator Cochran" mode, as it did its Mississippi two-step on who knew what and when. Then, McDaniel made a call for let's-stick-to-the-issues. That's hard to do when some of your supporters have just attempted one of the dirtiest tricks in state political history.
McDaniel supporters have been trying to rev up potential Cochran scandals, including a mystery loan to a super PAC that supports him. And at least one state tea party leader as of Friday was still riffing on Cochran's "living situation with his executive assistant." Cochran rents an apartment in her basement.
Now the McDaniel campaign is full-on trying to turn the tables on Cochran with the case, accusing him of "slander" and trying to game the incident with his wife for political points. They question the opportune timing. McDaniel has accused Cochran of sandbagging for weeks, to time arrests late in the race.
McDaniel continued Friday accusing Cochran of "using this incident for political purposes in order to hold onto power."
But in the final days of a campaign, where conventional wisdom is to leave a final happy sunshine image with voters, that's not the message on which any candidate would want to be focused.