Call it what you will, state Senator Chris McDaniel blinked. Despite his earlier caustic rhetoric, he will not challenge incumbent U.S. Senator Roger Wicker in the Republican Primary. Instead, he will compete in what he hopes will be an easier pathway to the Senate, the special election to fill retiring Sen. Thad Cochran’s seat.
Assuming his billionaire funders stick with him, McDaniel may be right about the pathway, but he displayed some cavalier opportunism in ducking Wicker.
The November 6 special election works almost like an open primary. Republicans, Democrats and independents run together. If no-one gets a majority, a run-off occurs two weeks later.
Former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture and Congressman Mike Espy will likely pull a large Democratic vote. McDaniel is counting on his base to put him ahead of any other Republican candidates to get in a runoff with Espy. He then hopes usually reliable GOP voters stick with him to beat Espy.
Espy must be hoping many moderate Mississippi voters will turn against the ultra-conservative McDaniel and choose a moderate Democrat, as they did in the recent Alabama special election.
All that, of course, hinges on McDaniel beating the Republican that Gov. Phil Bryant will soon name to fill Cochran’s seat until the special election.
Who can beat McDaniel is the overriding concern facing the Governor along with other state GOP leaders. Bryant might be toughest for McDaniel to beat. Many have encouraged him to go for it, including President Donald Trump. But Bryant told the Clarion-Ledger last week, “I’m never going to run for office again.”
Another strong candidate would be former Gov. Haley Barbour. While unlikely, a Barbour vs. McDaniel contest would resemble the extraordinary race four years ago between Cochran and McDaniel.
Another interesting race would be Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves vs. McDaniel. There is no love lost between these two. Reeves has kept McDaniel in a box in the Mississippi Senate.
Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann would have a chance. Others, such as House Speaker Philip Gunn and Agriculture and Commerce Commissioner Cindy Hyde-Smith, would have to build name ID and run hard to catch McDaniel.
And, if more than one strong Republican gets in, they would split votes needed to beat McDaniel.
Bryant has now made it clear he will appoint someone to Cochran’s seat other than McDaniel. “He is not on the list,” he told reporters. And, he wants someone who can stay in the Senate multiple decades to build seniority. Of the names mentioned, only Reeves at 43 really meets that criteria. Gunn at 55 would be next. Maybe the Governor has a surprise candidate?
Commenting on McDaniel’s switcheroo, Bryant said, “This opportunistic behavior is a sad commentary for a young man who once had great potential.”
This came after a rally by Tea Party leaders at the Capitol pushing on Bryant to appoint McDaniel. Bryant’s office issued a response saying, “The Governor believes Sen. McDaniel should focus his energy on the campaign to which he is committed.”
McDaniel, who regularly bashes the GOP establishment, then announced his pending switch and unabashedly called for all Mississippi Republicans to “unite around my candidacy and avoid another contentious contest.”