JACKSON – In the summer of 2014, little-known state Sen. Chris McDaniel came within a political eye lash (one-half percent or 1,720 votes) of defeating the iconic Thad Cochran and putting himself in position to be Mississippi’s next U.S. senator.
But McDaniel failed to garner a majority vote in that hot and contentious June Republican Party primary and Cochran rebounded to win the runoff and is now continuing his service in the U.S. Senate as chair of the Appropriations Committee.
There has been rampant speculation about whether McDaniel, who has affiliated himself with the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party, would wage a campaign in 2018 against Mississippi’s other United States Senate – Tupelo’s Roger Wicker.
McDaniel has sounded like a candidate for higher office on the internet and on social media.
“Although I have not made a decision, I am looking at two races very carefully – U.S. senator and lieutenant governor,” McDaniel, a third term state senator from Ellisville in Jones County, said in an e-mailed response.
In the 2019 state elections the office of lieutenant governor will be vacant. Incumbent Tate Reeves is prohibited from seeking a third consecutive term and is expected to run for governor.
The state race for lieutenant governor is possible, but McDaniel seems in his environment when talking national issues that would be the purview of a U.S. senator.
But should he run against Wicker, he will not have the advantage of being an unknown and lightly regraded candidate as he was against Cochran who was unaccustomed to challenging campaigns. In Cochran’s five re-election efforts, starting in 1984, he never garnered less than 60 percent of the vote until his contest against McDaniel.
Wicker, no doubt, will be prepared to run an aggressive, well prepared campaign and well financed campaign.
Wicker will be seeking his second full-term in the United States Senate after being appointed in December 2007 by then-Gov. Haley Barbour to fill the unexpired term of Trent Lott, who resigned unexpectedly. He handily won election to his first full-term in 2012.
Wicker will go into the 2018 campaign as a member of the Senate leadership team of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. He received national acclaim in political circles as chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee where under his watch in 2016 Republicans were able to hold their majority in the Senate against what was considered tough odds.
From almost the day he arrived in Washington, D.C., Wicker, a former state senator himself, has been part of leadership. He was president of the historic 1994 U.S. House freshmen class that gave the Republicans the majority for the first time since 1952.
Wicker will undoubtedly have the backing of mainstream national Republicans. And recent polls give Wicker a comfortable margin in a hypothetical matchup against McDanie among likely Republican primary voters..
“For those around here, Roger Wicker is strong,” said state Rep. Jody Steverson, R-Ripley. “…Chris McDaniel would be a strong candidate, and I like Chis as much as a member of the (Mississippi) House can like someone from the Senate.’
“I just don’t see anybody” beating Wicker.
But McDaniel said that the two candidates who won the most votes in the 2016 presidential primary in Mississippi were Donald Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
“That is my base, the people with whom I identify and the people with whom I have the most in common,” McDaniel said. McDaniel believes he can score points against Wicker as he did against Cochran by portraying him as not conservative enough and part of the Washington, D.C., establishment.
But Wicker’s campaign manager Justin Brasell said, “Sen. Wicker is prepared for a competitive race next year. We are organizing volunteers in all 82 counties across the state in order to run a very effective grassroots campaign.
Mississippi conservatives are standing solidly behind Sen. Wicker. He has been a staunch supporter of President Trump and the president’s agenda…,” Brasell said. “And he is championing many conservative priorities in the U.S. Senate.”
While McDaniel is sounding like a candidate, many question whether he will take on the formidable Wicker.
“I will need to feel at peace about that decision,” he admitted. “That encompasses talking with my family, talking with my friends and talking with my law partners to make sure I am doing the right thing.”