By Hastings Wyman –
Mississippi could be the site of a knock-down-drag-out Republican Primary in 2018 if state Sen. Chris McDaniel (R) decides to challenge ten year- incumbent US Sen. Roger Wicker next June. Wicker is an influential lawmaker. In the 2014 election cycle, he chaired the National Republican Senatorial Committee. He is also on the Senate Armed Services Committee, where he chairs the Subcommittee on Seapower, a position of major significance to Mississippi, site of a number shipbuilding facilities and suppliers.
But Wicker’s role as a prominent member of the Senate’s Republican establishment is a mixed blessing. In a time when many voters, especially those who are part of President Donald Trump’s rebellious right wing base, are suspicious or outright rejecting of “establishment” anything, a primary challenge can be daunting, if not successful. Look no further than Mississippi’s next door neighbor, Alabama, where hard-right social conservative Roy Moore defeated incumbent (by appointment) US Sen. Luther Strange (R) earlier this year, despite the President’s endorsement of Strange.
Enter McDaniel (R), a staunch conservative who challenged six-term US Sen. Thad Cochran (R) in 2014, won the first primary, but lost the runoff after Cochran’s campaign encouraged Democrats, including many African-Americans, to vote in the GOP contest, a move that enraged both McDaniel, who challenged the result in court to no avail, and his supporters, whose rallying cry is “Remember Mississippi.” McDaniel “would be very strong against Wicker,” says a Magnolia State Republican operative, noting his enthusiastic base of support, anxious to avenge McDaniel’s loss in the 2014 election, an election many feel was stolen from McDaniel.
But it would not be an easy task for McDaniel to beat Wicker. “McDaniel has high negatives because of the way he handled losing to Thad two years ago,” says a Jackson-based observer, essentially the flip side to the passion many McDaniel voters feel over the 2014 loss. He has few supporters among his fellow legislators. McDaniel has not been building a war chest; he filed no Federal Election Commission reports in 2015 or 2016, while Wicker had $3,592,000 cash-on-hand as of September 30.
In addition to having a larger war chest, Wicker has a number of advantages that would make him the early favorite against McDaniel. “Wicker loves campaigning,” says the GOP operative. “He’s not afraid to debate. He likes a fight. He’s not afraid to go all over the state. It will be a very different race from last time,” when McDaniel ran against Cochran. “Right now, McDaniel presents himself as a martyr to his base. If he loses again, he’s not a martyr, he’s just a loser.”
A big factor in Wicker’s favor is that Trump has endorsed him. “Trump’s numbers are strong in Mississippi,” says the observer. “It certainly helps Roger that Trump is supporting him. And McDaniel was a big Cruz supporter.” Moreover, Wicker is staying close to Trump. He publicly criticized US Sen. Bob Corker’s (R-TN) harsh attack on
Trump earlier this year. And in late October, he penned an op-ed accusing Democrats of delaying confirmation of the President’s appointments.
Tea Party leaders are urging Trump to stay out of the Mississippi Senate race; they point to his intervention in Alabama’s special senate election which did not help US Sen. Strange stave off the successful challenge by Moore.
“Six months ago, we were looking for a walk-in for Senator Wicker… Now, it’s looking like a heated primary,” says Dr. Dallas Breen, Executive Director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government. “There is definitely some movement toward McDaniel entering into the Republican Senate primary. He’s been given encouragement by [former Trump advisor] Steve Bannon.” Breen adds, “McDaniel was viewed more as a state candidate, but once Bannon mentioned his name, people began to think about him for the Senate. Bannon’s presence seems to have stirred an interest in the Senate race.”
Bannon wants to “make Mississippi the next domino to fall in an insurgency that would remake the Senate – and the Republican Party,” the New York Times reported last month. Bannon wants the candidates he endorses to support ending the Senate’s filibuster rule, which effectively means it takes 60 votes to pass legislation. He also wants them to support removing Mitch McConnell from his post as Senate Majority Leader. McDaniel refers to Wicker as McConnell’s “yes man” and calls for Wicker to support the abolition of the filibuster.
While Bannon supported Moore in Alabama, he bought only about $10,000 worth of TV spots there, hardly a major contribution. But Breen says that Bannon’s influence is “not so much money” but his significant presence on social media, which has become a force in its own right.
There is some uncertainty, however, about what McDaniel’s future course will be. He had said earlier that he would announce by the end of October, but October came and went with no word from McDaniel. Moreover, by this time in 2013, he had already announced and was putting together a strong campaign.
One reason for McDaniel’s delayed announcement may be that there is speculation that Cochran, who has been ill recently, might step down. “A special election for Thad’s seat would appeal to [McDaniel],” says the observer. “He has enough of a base to make the runoff with an establishment Republican. He might just drag this out till the qualifying date.” But if Cochran stays put and it’s only Wicker on the ballot, “I think he runs.” Stay