Chris McDaniel ended one U.S. Senate campaign this week and began another. The Mississippi state senator and establishment GOP gadfly announced on Wednesday that he will no longer challenge Republican Sen. Roger Wicker in a June primary and will instead run for the seat that will open up once the state’s other GOP senator, Thad Cochran, retires next month.
The news is simultaneously great for Wicker and pretty horrible for his Republican friends, both in the Washington establishment and back home in Mississippi. McDaniel presents a Roy Moore–shaped conundrum for Mitch McConnell and the rest of the GOP establishment. McDaniel is a proud Tea Party type, whose penchant for saying controversial things and alienating those in his own party could theoretically put the seat in play.
That was a concern when McDaniel was challenging Wicker, but it’s a much bigger one now that he’s the front-runner to replace Cochran. Because the race is a special election, there is no Republican primary, meaning the GOP won’t have a chance to knock off McDaniel before November. Running an establishment-friendly Republican against McDaniel could serve to divide the vote and boost a Democratic candidate. And, in another quirk, the special election won’t have party lines on the ballot, which could make all this tough to sort out for voters.
Toss in other anti-GOP headwinds, and conservatives are starting to fret—and liberals ever so cautiously hope—that Mississippi could prove to be a repeat of Alabama, where a fractured GOP and a weak Republican candidate opened the door for Democrat Doug Jones to steal a Senate seat last year.
McDaniel is no Roy Moore, which is to say McDaniel has not been repeatedly accused of being a child predator. But they carry some of the same potential baggage.
McDaniel speaks fondly of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a neo-Confederate group that likes to re-enact Civil War battles and celebrate Robert E. Lee’s birthday. He also spent three years as a nationally syndicated Christian talk-show host, which means there’s plenty of tape of him complaining that there aren’t enough Muslim villains in the movies, wondering about how as a non-Spanish speaker he might pick up “mamacitas” in Mexico should he need to move there to avoid paying reparations to the descendants of slaves, and blaming “hip-hop” for gun violence. (“This has nothing to do with race,” he promised. OK.) More recently, he took to Facebook following the Women’s March to declare that “almost all liberal women are unhappy” and to pose a question about those doing the marching: “[I]f they can afford all those piercings, tattoos, body paintings, signs, and plane tickets, then why do they want us to pay for their birth control?”
None of that is disqualifying in the Old South, but establishment Republicans have worried aloud for years that it could be enough to cost McDaniel in a head-to-head race with a centrist Democrat.
Still, it’s difficult to separate the Republican Party’s fears from its feelings when it comes to McDaniel. He waged a particularly nasty primary fight against Cochran in 2014, which consisted mostly of deriding McConnell and the GOP establishment. The message resonated: McDaniel made it to a runoff and eventually lost by less than 2 percentage points.
As speculation began to swirl earlier this year that Cochran’s deteriorating health would force him to retire this year, McConnell reportedly began urging Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant to appoint himself to finish out Cochran’s term. Bryant, who will soon be term-limited out of the governor’s mansion, doesn’t seem interested in heading to Washington, but is now “specifically” searching for someone to fill Cochran’s seat who will be able to beat McDaniel in the special election. Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann are believed to be on his short list.
Already, things are getting nasty. Cochran waited to announce his pending retirement until after the primary filing deadline, which forced McDaniel to declare his campaign against Wicker instead of waiting on Cochran. Bryant then completed the one-two punch on Wednesday when he attacked McDaniel for being “opportunistic” for switching races. He then ratcheted things up further on Thursday when he promised to actively campaign against McDaniel. The Tea Party and other hard-line conservative groups, meanwhile, are lining up behind McDaniel.
McDaniel, meanwhile, is calling for the party to rally around his campaign. “If we unite the party now and consolidate our resources, we can guarantee Donald Trump will have a fighter who will stand with him,” he said in a statement. Trump backed McDaniel in his 2014 primary against Cochran but endorsed Wicker this year. It’s not clear whether the president has turned on McDaniel, who served as a state co-chair for Ted Cruz campaign in 2016, or if he was simply backing another preferred candidate of McConnell’s.
Under Mississippi rules, if no candidate wins 50 percent of the vote in the Nov. 6 special election, the top two finishers, regardless of party, would proceed to a runoff the following month. If McDaniel and a TBD establishment rival were to split the GOP vote, that could open the door for a Democrat to squeeze into the runoff against whichever one of the battered Republicans survived. The Democrat would still be the underdog, but Mississippi isn’t quite as politically conservative as you might think. It has the highest share of African Americans of any state, and Republicans’ margin of victory in recent elections there has been about 10 points smaller than it was in Alabama, where Moore lost last year, or in Tennessee, where Democrats have a real chance of winning a Senate seat this fall. A Democratic victory in Mississippi remains a long shot, of course, but it’s a long shot that wasn’t there last week.