Chris McDaniel, a state legislator, is leaning toward challenging Sen. Roger Wicker next year in Mississippi in the Republican primary, saying the GOP’s stunning loss of a Senate seat this week in a special election in neighboring Alabama hasn’t discouraged him from running.
McDaniel lost narrowly to Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., in the 2014 primary, and is being urged to run again by Steve Bannon. President Trump’s former adviser is trying to foment a midterm insurrection against the Republican establishment, and views McDaniel as a prized recruit.
McDaniel, who had said earlier this fall that he would announce his 2018 plans in December, told the Washington Examiner in a telephone interview on Thursday that he would now do so in January.
Sources close to the state senator expect him to run, even though Roy Moore’s loss suggests more inhospitable terrain for insurgent conservatives than thought just months ago when the retired judge ousted appointed Sen. Luther Strange, R-Ala., an ally of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in a runoff.
“It doesn’t weigh on my decision at all,” McDaniel said, of Tuesday's results in Alabama. “It’s pretty clear to me, and most Mississippians, that that race is an anomaly. It’s just very rare for an individual to be accused of some of the most egregious conduct imaginable, which is pedophilia. It’s as bad as it gets.”
“So, when those accusations began to fly, the entire news cycle and the establishment GOP, turned against Roy Moore immediately, so he had to live with that for three and a half weeks,” McDaniel added. That’s a very difficult thing for anyone to overcome, because they were so troubling and they were so serious.”
Bannon, the Breitbart News executive chairman, is targeting incumbents in Republican primaries, like Wicker, who are loyal to McConnell. His goal is to elect Republicans to the Senate who will oppose McConnell and eject him from the majority leader post. McDaniel fits that profile.
McConnell and the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the national party’s Senate campaign arm, dumped millions into Mississippi in 2014 to defeat McDaniel, who enjoyed the support of anti-establishment, conservative groups — and Bannon and Breitbart News.
If elected, McDaniel would be inclined to oppose McConnell. McDaniel said that he talks to Bannon “off and on,” but emphasized that they do not agree on all policy matters.
“Steve is a bright person, he has a hard-work ethic, he’s very driven, and he was one the key reasons Donald Trump is president today. I do listen to him,” McDaniel said. “We do agree on the most important issue, and that is: Washington, D.C., has to be changed.”
Alabama seemed like a good bet for Bannon and a solid place from which to launch his insurgency against the GOP establishment. The state is overwhelmingly Republican and among the most favorable to Trump in the nation. Whoever won the GOP primary in the special election was positioned to cruise in the general election.
Arguments that a flawed candidate like Moore could put Alabama in play, pushed by McConnell and his loyalists, seemed far-fetched. Then, Moore lost to Democrat Doug Jones. The establishment’s claims about what could happen in 2018 now appear more credible. Party insiders opposed to Bannon are trying to paint all candidates aligned with him with the same tainted brush.
Senate Leadership Fund, McConnell’s super PAC posted a tweet on Thursday titled “The Bannon Effect” with an map of Alabama counties with the results of Tuesday’s special election, won by Jones, and the 2014 election, won by now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who ran unopposed that year because he was so popular.
Republicans in Washington are fingering McDaniel as another Moore upset waiting to happen. McDaniel said all he wants to do is give Mississippi the representation it deserves based on how conservative the state is.
“There’s this philosophical divide in our party that needs to be addressed. Sen. Wicker is a Mitch McConnell ‘yes’ man,” McDaniel said. “He’s taken a stand against term limits, he’s taken a stand against our state flag, he may campaign as a Republican but ultimately governs much like a Democrat or at the very least a Republican from Maine.”
In Mississippi, there is some speculation that McDaniel might decline to challenge Wicker because Cochran, who has been ill, might resign due to health reasons. McDaniel declined to address that, saying only that he wished Cochran a speedy recovery.