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State Sen. Chris McDaniel is inching closer to a 2018 bid against U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, spurred on in part by meetings this week with former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon.
“I’m still undecided, but that victory (by Roy Moore in Alabama) last night makes the 2018 race much more compelling,” McDaniel told Mississippi Today.
“Steve and these individuals are very patient and experienced people,” McDaniel continued. “They’re not the type of individuals who seek rushed decisions. When we’ve discussed my political future, they’ve encouraged me to make the right decisions for the movement.”
McDaniel met with Bannon Monday night in Alabama, where Bannon helped construct a runaway anti-establishment victory for Moore over incumbent Republican Sen. Luther Strange.
Bannon, who has waged war on Washington’s establishment Republicans for years, has renewed that activity since leaving the White House in August. The arch-conservative maverick has long supported McDaniel, who narrowly lost the controversial 2014 GOP primary to U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran.
Wicker is one of several senators Bannon has specifically named a target in 2018. For months, McDaniel has toured the state, gauging whether to launch another Senate bid or wait until 2019 to run for lieutenant governor.
For establishment Republicans, the movement fueled by Bannon is deafening. Running on grassroots conservative principles, their candidates — such as Moore in Alabama — promise to adhere to what’s best for the common man, not Washington’s wealthy elite. Supporters helped fuel last year’s successful presidential run by Donald Trump.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has expressed concern about the attack from the anti-establishment faction. Tuesday’s election in Alabama was seen by politicos as the first major loss for the establishment wing of the party.
Strange, who was financially backed by allies of McConnell and endorsed by President Trump, was appointed to the Senate earlier this year to fill the seat left vacant when Jeff Sessions became U.S. Attorney General.
Moore, the conservative firebrand who was removed from his position as chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court last year and has made a career out of publicizing his religious beliefs taking precedence over constitutional safeguards, soundly defeated Strange.
McDaniel — who said he thinks the political climate in the state is more favorable for him now than in it was when he challenged Cochran in 2014 — said he and Bannon had several conversations about a 2018 bid against Wicker this week, both in the formal meeting Monday night and in sidebars at Moore’s campaign events.
By the time the race was called for Moore Tuesday night, McDaniel unleashed a barrage of social media posts from Moore’s election party in Fairhope, Alabama.
“The people of Mississippi are proud tonight. Happy for our sister state! This is just the beginning,” McDaniel tweeted.
McDaniel quickly fired off another tweet: “Now, it’s time to take this energy, channel it, and kick the GOP establishment out of DC.”
Minutes later, at the Moore campaign party, Bannon grabbed the mic and fired another warning shot at the establishment, again hinting at a Wicker challenge and calling Alabama’s election of Moore the beginning of a “revolution.”
“You’re going to see in state, after state, after state, people that follow the model of Judge Moore — that do not need to raise money from the elites, from the crony capitalists, from the fat cats in Washington, D.C.,” Bannon said.
Further laying the groundwork for a potential McDaniel 2018 bid is a group of donors, led by the billionaire Mercer family, who are close political allies with Bannon. McDaniel said on Tuesday that at least $1 million has been pledged to fund a Wicker challenger in Mississippi.
Robert Mercer dropped a first check in a McDaniel-tied super PAC, as chronicled in a Y’all Politics report earlier this month.
“I’ve known the Mercers since 2013, and we’ve talked a good deal about 2018,” McDaniel said.
Noting that the GOP establishment has “always been able to use money to crush opposition,” McDaniel suggested that “because of our ability to contact voters in different ways, it’s more difficult for them to take that route.”
But for 7,667 votes in a controversial primary runoff against Cochran, McDaniel would already have a seat in the U.S. Senate. McDaniel garnered more votes than Cochran in the June 2014 primary but ultimately lost in a runoff three weeks later.
Claiming that Mississippi Democrats rushed to the polls to vote for Cochran in the runoff, McDaniel and a national group supporting him filed lawsuits in federal and state courts. All lawsuits and their appeals were dismissed by judges, but McDaniel pressed on with accusations of voter fraud and pressed for state election reform.
All the while, McDaniel has quietly been laying the groundwork for a campaign. His Facebook page — which currently has 70,000 more likes than Wicker’s — serves as a hub for his base with multiple posts from McDaniel per day.
For months, McDaniel has pointedly criticized Wicker’s “liberal voting record” and his inability to work with other Senate Republicans to repeal the Affordable Care Act. McDaniel has also roused support from conservatives by highlighting Wicker’s desire to change the state flag — the last in the nation containing the Confederate battle emblem.
Old 2014 campaign signs reading “Chris McDaniel for U.S. Senate” were displayed at Mississippi State University earlier this month, when 60,596 people showed up to watch the Bulldogs defeat LSU on the gridiron. McDaniel said on Facebook that his supporters took that public support upon themselves.
Breitbart News, formerly chaired by Bannon before he worked for the Trump campaign and White House, published an article in March 2017 with the headline: “Exclusive — Amid Paul Ryan’s Obamacare 2.0 Push, Mississippi’s Chris McDaniel Preps for Potential 2018 Senate Run.” McDaniel shared that article on his Facebook page, asking followers to give their input.
Breitbart also pushed word of McDaniel’s attendance at Moore’s Monday night rally, in which Bannon spoke for 20 minutes about Moore and the impending “reckoning” for establishment Republicans.
In another blow to GOP leadership on Tuesday, U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, a longtime Tennessee incumbent, announced he would not seek reelection in 2018 – a fear McConnell and other Republicans had expressed about several senators facing anti-incumbent opposition.
Wicker’s campaign staff did not immediately return requests for comment on Wednesday.
McDaniel said he hopes to make a decision about running in 2018 by the end of October.
“I feel a heavy responsibility,” McDaniel said. “I don’t think one election or politician can change the world. My philosophy is about the people. If I can inspire people to take back the reins of government, ultimately I will have done my job.”