McDaniel Operatives Coordinating with Democrats in Lt. Governor Campaign

Jackson, Miss. (Scott County Times) – Bob Hickingbottom, a little-known Democrat running for governor in 2023, posted a soon-to-be viral message to his campaign Facebook page on Feb. 17 around 3 p.m.

“… I hope you will join me and vote for the Democrats from the top to the bottom of the ticket. With the exception of my good friend Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann who has to run as a Republican to win. Delbert is really a Democrat and has been our friend through the years. We all need to do everything we can for him,” Hickingbottom wrote to his 400 or so page followers.

A few minutes later, at 3:34 p.m., Hosemann’s GOP opponent in the August primary for lieutenant governor, state Sen. Chris McDaniel, posted a screenshot of that Hickingbottom post onto his own page with the post: “There you have it. Democrats Love Delbert! #DelbertTheDemocrat.”

McDaniel is the far-right conservative who developed a national brand and following in 2014 when he nearly defeated longtime U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran. In that 2014 race, McDaniel ran what is considered the first Mississippi campaign to realize the full political power of social media. He has since sharpened that skillset and has hundreds of thousands of followers of like-minded, fired-up conservatives across the state and nation.

After McDaniel posted the Hickingbottom screenshot, his social media machine got to work. Several right-leaning and pro-McDaniel Facebook groups and users begin reposting it with the hashtag #DelbertTheDemocrat. Many of these other accounts have ridden McDaniel’s coattails in the development of their own brands and social media followings.

That evening, though, several Facebook users posted a different version of the Hickingbottom screenshot that spread quickly through Mississippi’s far-right conservative online spaces. This separate version of the Hickingbottom screenshot clearly showed something peculiar under the post: “Posted by Ashley Rae Bright.”

Social media savants know that those words being listed there indicates that a woman named Ashley Rae Bright is the “Elect Bob Hickingbottom” Facebook page administrator. In political campaigns, Facebook administrator duties are typically reserved for staffers of a campaign. It’s a delicate and important power to wield, and campaigns, in particular, are very careful about who gets granted that access.

A quick Google search of Ashley Rae Bright shows that she is a consultant for The Allain Group, a Jackson-based political consulting company “offering strong strategic and creative expertise to political campaigns and business clients.”

The president of The Allain Group is Lane “L.C.” Murray, a longtime Mississippi political operative. Murray, a self-admitted former member of the Ku Klux Klan, became a controversial player in the 2014 Senate race between McDaniel and Cochran.

Murray told Breitbart News during the 2014 race that he was a McDaniel supporter after Murray threatened a Republican state senator by phone. His former membership to the KKK was a focus of the Breitbart piece.

Mississippi Today contacted Murray last week to ask if The Allain Group was working for Hickingbottom’s campaign in any way.

“The Allain Group hasn’t been hired by him,” Murray told Mississippi Today in a phone interview. “I do know Mr. Hickingbottom, he’s a better friend than anything else. I haven’t talked to him in a while. I know he’s had COVID and he recently got kicked off the Democratic ballot. But no, Hickingbottom has not contacted The Allain Group, and we are not doing anything for him.”

Asked why Bright, an employee of The Allain Group, appeared to be an administrator of the Elect Bob Hickingbottom Facebook page, Murray deflected.

“I don’t know anything about that,” Murray said. “She works some part time for us, uh, back and forth. I remember her saying something about her computer being hacked or something like that. She was raising hell one day about her Facebook had been hacked. But I’m going to talk to her in the next hour or so, and I’ll call you back and tell you what I find out.”

Murray hung up and called back later that day with an update.

“She does not know Bob Hickingbottom,” Murray said of Bright. “She said somebody hacked her computer, something about someone posting something to his campaign page. She reported it. A day or two later somebody hacked it with something else. I don’t know too much about computers. But like I said, I do know him, but we’re not doing any work for him at all.”

Mississippi Today reached out to Bright directly on Facebook and asked if she was working for the Hickingbottom campaign.

“Sir, I do not know the gentleman,” Bright wrote in a message. “My Facebook was hacked a couple times several weeks ago.”

When Mississippi Today sent Bright a screenshot that showed her as the Elect Bob Hickingbottom Facebook page administrator, Bright replied: “I seen that post as well, changed password and all. I don’t know him so therefore I can’t help you.”

When Mississippi Today then asked why a hacker would make her an administrator of Hickingbottom campaign’s Facebook page to post a political message, she doubled down on her denial of any work with Hickingbottom.

“Sir, I told you I do not know the gentleman,” Bright replied. “I do not know how that showed up on my Facebook. I’ve answered your questions. Now please leave me alone!”

Bright and Hickingbottom are friends on Facebook. Mississippi Today did not get the chance to ask Bright about why she is Facebook friends with someone she purportedly does not know before she declined to speak further.

Hickingbottom, 75, has been involved in Mississippi politics for decades. He broke through working as a political operative for scandal-ridden former Jackson Mayor Frank Melton. Speaking on popular conservative radio host Kim Wade’s show in 2007, Hickingbottom put his career this way: “I’ve been at the forefront of every dirty deal that was cut in politics.”

In 2019, Hickingbottom ran for governor as a Constitution Party candidate, using his limited platform to blister Democratic nominee Jim Hood, who came within six points of defeating now-Gov. Tate Reeves. In public Facebook posts during that race, Hickingbottom rarely turned his ire toward Reeves.

And most recently, Hickingbottom has been the subject of broad statewide news coverage after he and another candidate for governor were disqualified from the 2023 Democratic ballot. State Democratic Party officials say he was disqualified for not filing a statement of economic interest, a required form where candidates publicly disclose their personal business interests, and required campaign finance reports when he ran for governor in 2019. Since his disqualification, Hickingbottom has publicly pannedDemocratic Party leadership and has even threatened a lawsuit.

In a Mississippi Today interview with Hickingbottom last week, he said he thought it was “unconscionable” that the Democratic Party would disqualify two Black men in a primary against Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley, who is white and widely regarded as the party’s frontrunner.

But later in the interview, talking about his political background, Hickingbottom said: “I’m pretty conservative myself, to tell you the truth. I’m honestly too conservative for the Democrats probably.”

“I’ll put it to you this way, I’m a political operative,” Hickingbottom said. “I’ll work with whoever hires me, Democrat or Republican or whoever.”

Mississippi Today asked Hickingbottom in the interview about the controversial Facebook post about Hosemann and the apparent ties to The Allain Group.

Hickingbottom told Mississippi Today that he published the Facebook post himself. Asked why Bright was listed as his Facebook page administrator who posted it, he got weird.

“I don’t, well, I don’t know an Ashley Bright. I don’t know who she is” Hickingbottom said before abruptly changing the subject.

When Mississippi Today circled back about why Bright showed up as the administrator of his campaign Facebook page, Hickingbottom paused.

“I’ll be honest with you, I’m an old guy and I didn’t even know anything about computers,” he said. “… I know how to do email and put stuff on Facebook, and I learned that basically through my telephone. All I can tell you is I don’t know her, I’ve never met her. Maybe she got hacked. All I use Facebook on is my phone. My phone has been hacked many times. I’ve had a reputation — let’s just put it like this, I was a flamethrower … I have a lot of enemies.”

He said several times during the interview that he believes Hosemann, a successful politician who has won four statewide elections as a Republican, is a Democrat. Hickingbottom said that he did not intend to hurt Hosemann nor help McDaniel.

“In 2014, I was on the air with other people talking against Chris McDaniel,” Hickingbottom said. “He was Tea Party, trying to do Thad (Cochran) in. We were talking about him real bad. A lot of people asked us to rip Chris McDaniel and get people to vote for Thad Cochran.”

Asked if he’d in any way solicited the help of The Allain Group to work on his campaign, Hickingbottom said he hadn’t. But he did acknowledge he knew Murray, the president of the consulting firm.

“I’ve known Lane Murray, he’s a fixture in politics,” Hickingbottom said. “I’ve been an operative myself for years and years. I know Lane Murray, Greg Brand, and to some extent they know me. But I haven’t seen him in two or three years at least. Since probably the end of 2020. I know him, but that’s the extent of it.”

Greg Brand, whom Hickingbottom mentioned unprompted, is another Mississippi political operative with a troubled past.

In 2016, then-Secretary of State Hosemann pushed then-Attorney General Jim Hood to pursue charges against Brand for violating election law — specifically for mailing attack ads without identifying the group or individual who sent it. Brand and another operative were sentenced to six months probation and a $500 fine. Brand briefly tried to sue Hosemann in federal court over the episode, but that lawsuit was dismissed.

There’s yet another strange tie between Hickingbottom and The Allain Group: they are immediate neighbors in the same Jackson office building, according to Mississippi Secretary of State records.

Hickingbottom, who owns a company called “Blackstone Distributors LLC,” lists his business address at 1755 Lelia Drive, Suite 232, Jackson, MS 39216. The office for The Allain Group is 1755 Lelia Drive, Suite 222, Jackson, MS 39216. The suites are directly next to one another on the second floor of the office building.

Hickingbottom told Mississippi Today he had a small office space at that address “a couple years ago, but I was wasting money by paying for it so I moved out.”

Murray repeated something similar.

“I’ve been in that office for four or five years,” Murray said of the office. “He had an office close to mine, a little one room thing. I might have seen him once or twice, but I don’t think he’s been in there for two or three years.”

Both Murray and Hickingbottom denied any coordinated effort to help McDaniel’s campaign.

Meanwhile, Hickingbottom continues posting incendiary Facebook posts about Hosemann. And McDaniel and his far-right social media circles keep using Hickingbottom’s posts to campaign directly against Hosemann. The strategy appears thorough and coordinated, and it has continued for weeks.

Radio host Kim Wade, a longtime and active public supporter of McDaniel, again had Hickingbottom on his show on Feb. 21 — just four days after Hickingbottom’s controversial Facebook post.

When Hickingbottom reiterated on the show that Hosemann was a Democrat, Wade replied: “Wow. There is some validity to what you’re saying given how he treated President Trump and how he treats conservatives. We can ignore it at our own peril.”

A clip of that radio show made its rounds on McDaniel’s social media.

“A MUST LISTEN,” McDaniel’s 2014 campaign manager and current state Sen. Melanie Sojourner posted to her Facebook page with a clip to the Wade interview.

McDaniel posted the same radio clip to his own Facebook page with similar language to Sojourner’s post: “BREAKING: This is a MUST LISTEN. Democrat candidate for Governor discusses Delbert Hosemann: ‘He’s a Democrat.’”

Others in right-wing media have been singing the same tune. Jim Cegielski, publisher of the Laurel Leader-Call newspaper and a longtime McDaniel lackey, wrote a column about Hickingbottom’s shock claim with the headline: “Delbert’s a Democrat … Bet your Hickingbottom dollar on it.”

McDaniel posted that column to his hundreds of thousands of social media followers multiple times. In all, McDaniel has posted at least 10 separate posts to his social media pages boosting Hickingbottom’s words and using them to paint Hosemann as a Democrat.

“BREAKING NEWS: Delbert Hosemann gets a huge endorsement this week,” McDaniel posted on Feb. 23. “You are not going to believe it! We’ve always known Democrats love Delbert Hosemann behind the scenes, but now they are becoming public in their support. A Democrat candidate for Governor, Bob Hickingbottom, publicly endorsed Delbert Hosemann this week!”

That long post from McDaniel went on to mention the Kim Wade radio interview, closing the post by writing: “Perhaps Bob Hickingbottom did say it best — Delbert is the best Lt. Governor that Democrats could possibly have in Mississippi. It’s time for a change, Mississippi.”

Hickingbottom, for his part, keeps on posting, even after Mississippi Today questioned him about his posts.

On March 7, Hickingbottom posted a letter he says he sent to Hosemann.

“To my fellow Mississippian and friend Lt. Governor Delbert Hosemann,” Hickingbottom’s letter begins, “I have been told that I may have hurt you and your re-election campaign for Lt. Governor. I sincerely hope that is not true because that was not my intention. If you recall, I first met you many years ago when I was introduced to you by our mutual friend Louis Armstrong. In those days we were all proud Democrats like most of Mississippi at the time.”

On March 9, Hickingbottom posted a rambling, all-caps post that reiterates he never meant to hurt “Lt. Gov. Delbert Horseman (sic).”

On March 12, Hickingbottom posted a criticism of Hosemann for his work to change the Mississippi state flag in 2020, retiring the state’s last-in-American Confederate battle emblem design to a museum. That is a pirated talking point from many of McDaniel’s supporters.

Asked for comment, the Hosemann campaign appeared to be following the sequence of Hickingbottom events closely.

“This scheme was concocted to create a false narrative to support a losing campaign,” said Casey Phillips, senior adviser for the Delbert Hosemann campaign. “Why else would a former Klansman and known McDaniel supporter be running this person’s Facebook page? Before we know it, they will all be locked up in a courthouse again.”

Phillips said Hosemann does not know Hickingbottom, and that Hosemann has never received any letter from Hickingbottom — including that strange March 7 letter posted to Facebook.

The courthouse reference, of course, harkens back to the 2014 U.S. Senate race, when a McDaniel campaign staffer and two McDaniel supporters were found locked in the Hinds County Courthouse late on election night — one of just many shocking wrinkles of that wild race.

McDaniel’s campaign denied working with or communicating with Hickingbottom’s campaign and said that Murray is not working for the campaign.

“Unequivocally, neither Senator McDaniel nor any member of his campaign apparatus are communicating with, coordinating alongside, nor focusing on Bob Hickingbottom’s candidacy,” said Nicole Tardif, spokesperson for McDaniel’s campaign.

Murray, who told Mississippi Today last week he was not working with McDaniel, apparently fashions himself as working behind the scenes for the conservative state senator.

With the past week, Murray sent text messages to several people across the state. One person, granted anonymity over fear of retribution from the Ku Klux Klan, shared the Murray text with Mississippi Today. The message’s focus: “Delbert the Democrat.”

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