Sen. Roger Wicker may be drawing a crowd of challengers

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Rogelio V. Solis, AP

Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Ellisville, speaks during Mississippi Senate floor debate earlier this year.

As Chris McDaniel, the state’s anti-Republican establishment standard bearer, approaches a formal decision to challenge U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker in the June Republican primary, Democrat David Baria confirmed Monday that he is still strongly considering a run as well. 

Baria, a state representative from Bay St. Louis, told Mississippi Today that he would give “serious thought” to running for the seat should McDaniel challenge Wicker in the Republican primary.

Update: President Donald Trump endorses Wicker re-election 

McDaniel teased supporters with a social media request to visit his Facebook page Monday evening for news about his decision. Numerous media reports said the formal kickoff of McDaniel’s bid is expected at political rally at noon Wednesday at Jones County Junior College in his hometown of Ellisville.

“We’re looking for a fight. I can’t wait to have you on my team again,” McDaniel said during the livestream on Facebook. “I’m going to be holding an event, and I think you can probably read between the lines as to why. My family and I want you to be part of this – an announcement we believe will hopefully change the way we see ourselves and the role of government.”

Baria noted that he must make a decision this week as well.

I think it takes a somewhat unique dynamic to see a path of victory for a Democrat in a U.S. Senate race in Mississippi,” Baria said on Monday afternoon. “In a vacuum, Chris McDaniel getting in against Wicker creates the kind of dynamic that leads me to believe that might be achievable.”

Baria said he has talked with Sen. Chris Van Hollen, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, about a potential Senate bid, as well as Democratic Sen. Doug Jones, who upset anti-establishment candidate Roy Moore in late 2017. Baria said he’s also considering running for Sen. Thad Cochran’s seat should it become vacant this year.

Gil Ford Photography

Rep. David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis

“Sen. Jones shared with me that he had a very good team in place (in 2017) and if I ever got interested in doing it, I should talk with people on his team,” Baria said.

A McDaniel announcement for Wicker’s seat would mean a frenzied three months for the two Republicans to battle for the hearts of the state’s Republican voters, which in recent years has been tantamount to victory in the fall general election.

Wicker has not been idle. He already has been endorsed for re-election by President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and others and has been stepping up his social media presence while running political ads. 

McDaniel, 40, first rose to political prominence in 2014, when he staged a nearly successful upset of longtime Sen. Thad Cochran. He earned more votes than Cochran but barely less than a majority in the primary, but Cochran received more votes in a runoff three weeks later to become the party nominee and coast to another term in the general election.

McDaniel spent months refusing to concede the election, eventually losing a challenge of the results in court.

McDaniel, an attorney first elected to the state Senate in 2008, is the latest anti-establishment candidate to attempt to shake up the party’s Washington power structure. Facing challenges from the right, several GOP senators in other states have said they will not seek re-election in 2018.

Not all attempts have been successful. In Alabama, conservative firebrand Roy Moore successfully beat incumbent U.S. Sen. Luther Strange in the GOP primary but then lost to Democrat Doug Jones in the general election, unexpectedly trimming the party’s majority in the U.S. Senate to just 51 senators.

McDaniel’s campaign is expected to receive close national attention and be infused with substantial financial backing from national GOP mega-donors, including Robert Mercer and Dick Uihlein, who helped finance Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. Both donors already gave $500,000 each to a pro-McDaniel super PAC last year.

For months, McDaniel has been quietly laying the groundwork for a Wicker challenge. He has been encouraged to run by Steve Bannon, once Trump’s key political adviser, who left the Trump administration last year but has run into some disfavor among conservatives for his criticism of Trump.    

McDaniel’s Facebook page — which currently has 90,000 more likes than Wicker’s — serves as the hub for his base with multiple posts from McDaniel each day.

The ultra-conservative 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 displaying the Confederate battle emblem.

“Once his record is shown to Mississippi, they’re going to leave him because he’s been there 24 years,” McDaniel told Mississippi Today earlier this year. “The idea that he can attach himself to Trump over the last six months in a race for the last 25 years, he has a record to account for.”

“We believe that Roger Wicker is more beholden to Mitch McConnell than he is to Mississippi, and his voting record speaks to that very clearly,” McDaniel said.

Rogelio V. Solis, AP

Sen. Roger Wicker

Wicker, approaching the March 1 qualifying deadline, has announced several endorsements in the past week, including one from 2014 McDaniel backer Rick Santorum, a former presidential candidate and former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania. Sensing a potential challenge from McDaniel, Wicker also has run ads on television and social media pairing his voting record to Trump’s policies.

Wicker’s campaign committee and affiliated political action committees had raised about $5.5 million as of January 1. At that same time, Wicker reported total cash on hand of $4.4 million. Wicker also earned praise from Republican party activists nationwide for his leadership role in helping keep the Republican majority in the Senate during the 2016 election cycle.  

A pro-McDaniel super PAC — Remember Mississippi PAC — raised more than $1 million in 2017, including donations from Mercer and Uihlein. Remember Mississippi reported approximately $1.2 million cash on hand at the first of the year.

Leftover “Chris McDaniel for U.S. Senate” signs from 2014 have appeared on roadways and well-attended events across the state in recent months. McDaniel has maintained that those efforts have been from his supporters, not from any official campaign.

In unofficial campaign stops and speeches across the state, McDaniel has preached against Wicker’s leadership style and partnership with Republican leaders like McConnell.

Q&A: McDaniel on Roger Wicker, Donald Trump, Steve Bannon

“We’ve tried it Roger Wicker’s way for 100 years,” McDaniel said. “We’ve always utilized our seniority to draw down federal funds, and for 100 years we’ve remained dead last following their playbook. Our suggestion is it’s time to give someone else a shot.”

Baria, 55, is a lawyer and serves as the head of the Democratic caucus in the Mississippi House. He previously served in the state Senate.

Asked about his fundraising, Baria replied: “I’ve got no commitments from anybody, except for the person who, when she heard I was running, wrote me a $250 check. That’s what I’ve got. I have a willing partner in my wife and my law partner. I’ve got my desire to see things change. Other than that, that’s it.”

As for the challenge facing a Democrat running statewide, he said, “I know people say a Dem can’t win or raise money here. I get that. A good friend of mine who served statewide for many years said you can’t win if you don’t try. You can buy name ID if you’ve got enough money in the bank. It’s just a matter of spending the money.”

If Baria runs, he would face Democratic candidate Jensen Bohren, who qualified for the race earlier this year and registered a campaign committee with the Federal Election Commission. The little-known 34 year old, who has no political experience, lists his platform issues on a Twitter account and website.