ELLISVILLE — Chris McDaniel, star of one of the most dramatic primaries in Mississippi history, announced Wednesday that he’s ready for a second act: taking on U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker.
“Donald Trump told us he wanted to drain the swamp, and I’m going to go there to drain the swamp,” McDaniel said. The audience rose to its feet with applause as an aide placed a Chris McDaniel for U.S. Senate sign on the podium.
“I guess the cat’s out of the bag,” McDaniel said. “Let’s talk about the bag. I’m proud of our state, I’m proud of our values, I’m proud of our heritage. We deserve better. ”
“If I’m elected, I’m not going up there to beg; I’m going up there to fight,” he promised his supporters. “I’m not going up there to be a leadership lap dog; I’m going to be Mississippi’s bulldog.”
McDaniel’s delayed announcement has been the hottest political show in the state for months. So the spotlight fixed on the candidate has never been brighter than here at Jones County Junior College on Wednesday.
His supporters have egged him on for months and a political action committee has announced it has raised $1 million for his Senate run. His Hamlet-like delay in making his intentions known — he had missed several promised deadlines stretching to last fall to make his intentions known — only added to the drama.
His Republican primary opponent, incumbent Sen. Roger Wicker, already has spent thousands on ads hoping to deter the anti-establishment state senator from running. President Donald Trump got into the contest late Tuesday, tweeting his support for Wicker.
The Wicker for Senate campaign issued this statement Wednesday after McDaniel declared his candidacy: “Gayle and I are looking forward to this campaign and sharing my record of successfully fighting to reduce job-killing regulations, confirm conservative judges, enact historic tax cuts, rebuild our military, and honor our veterans. We will work hard to once again earn the votes and support of all Mississippians.”
All the speculation and intrigue culminated in McDaniel’s official announcement in Ellisville, where he was born and raised and where few noticed when he launched his 2014 primary challenge to Sen. Thad Cochran.
“Men like Roger Wicker failed to stand for you. Men like Roger Wicker remained eerily silent for the first 24 years of his tenure,” McDaniel said. “Thank God for President Trump – he’s made Roger Wicker a conservative for about three weeks. But he’s found the light now, right? He senses the possibility of a primary challenger, and he wants you to forget about all those bad votes.”
Wicker campaign manager Justin Brasell responded to McDaniel’s comments in a statement released to the press on Wednesday:
“While Roger Wicker was speaking on Donald Trump’s behalf at the Republican National Convention and traveling the country to help elect President Trump and Republican U.S. Senators, Chris McDaniel was missing. After attacking and insulting Donald Trump and his supporters in the primary, Senator McDaniel did nothing to help elect our President.”
McDaniel catapulted into the national political scene when he beat Cochran in the primary, but failed to gain the majority of votes required to earn the Republican primary. What ensued was a bitter three-week runoff, won by Cochran amid allegations that Democrats had improperly voted in the runoff for Cochran over the insurgent McDaniel.
Dozens of people lined up outside the Home and Health Building at Jones County Junior College Wednesday, waiting to get inside the 200-seat lecture hall. The line wrapped around the building and stretched into a nearby parking lot.
The stage inside was set with a massive, floor-to-ceiling American flag behind the podium. The state flag of Mississippi, the last in the nation containing the Confederate battle emblem and a regular political issue McDaniel pushes, was also on the stage.
National television cameras streamed his announcement live. Every Jackson media outlet, print and broadcast, had a presence, as well as several Hattiesburg and Gulf Coast outlets.
Several people in line outside bought Chris McDaniel for Senate T-Shirts and the book Remember Mississippi, written by Ryan Walters, which describes McDaniel’s attempt to unseat Cochran. A website was also launched for the Senate bid. Many attendees said they were excited to hear McDaniel speak and were eager to be present for the announcement.
“History is being made today, and we’re here for it,” said Larry Eubanks, a native of Star.
The 2014 primary loss to Cochran that instantly entered the Mississippi political history books served as the theme of the announcement Wednesday and will serve as the entire campaign’s theme: “Remember Mississippi.”
But there was a darker side to that primary, including intense mud-slinging and a scandal involving photos improperly taken by McDaniel supporters of Cochran’s ill wife in a nursing home bed. Many supporters of the arch-conservative claimed the election was stolen from them. McDaniel himself never conceded the race and unsuccessfully challenged the results in court.
Cochran’s seat may not be totally off McDaniel’s radar. Asked if it is conceivable that he would drop out of the race for Wicker’s seat and run in a November special election to succeed Cochran, should the senator retire before his current term concludes, McDaniel responded, “It is. You can’t foreclose any possibility in politics. It’s absolutely possible.”
McDaniel has spent the months since the loss maintaining and building his base of Mississippi voters who are fed up with Washington’s power structure – a sentiment shared by many gathered at the event. That sentiment also was credited with vaulting Trump to the White House, a candidacy that McDaniel backed as the businessman turned politician easily won Mississippi’s support.
So the president’s endorsement of Wicker — an effort to hold onto the slim Republican majority in the U.S. Senate — will test the loyalties of the state’s voters in the June primary. Some have equated these developments in Mississippi to last year’s special Senate election in neighboring Alabama, when conservative party members chose Roy Moore over the establishment and Trump favorite, incumbent Luther Strange, only to see Moore lose the general election to Democrat Doug Jones.
“We’re not mad about it (the endorsement of Wicker),” McDaniel said. “We understand it. That’s the Washington way. You have to cut deals. I want to be clear: When I get there, I’m not cutting any deals.”
“Our federal government is completely out of control,” said Bruce Cook, a Moss Point resident who is the state deputy director for Convention of the States, a conservative movement whose goal is limiting the reach of the federal government. “It’s not Democrats, it’s not Republicans, it’s all of them. We need real change in Washington, and Chris McDaniel represents that change.
“McDaniel stands on principle, and I trust that he won’t be swayed by anyone,” Cook added. “Have you ever seen (Wicker) on television? He doesn’t stand for our values. Chris McDaniel is absolutely the better choice.”
Wicker, who is seeking his second full term, has not been idle. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and others have also endorsed him as the national GOP establishment seeks to maintain its grip on the rank and file. Wicker has been stepping up his social media presence and has been running political ads.
Late Tuesday, Wicker fired off tweets to McDaniel, criticizing his support of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in the 2016 presidential election. Several Mississippi GOP operatives took to social media to announce their support for Wicker and offer some intimidation in the face of the expected announcement by McDaniel.
“I was with Trump all the way. I still am,” said Cook, the Star resident. “But he’s surrounded by people who give him bad advice. I’m not happy about it, but I understand Chris is the best choice for Mississippi.”
Tyrone Turner from Bruce, wearing a Citizens Militia of Mississippi shirt said he has met McDaniel: “I’ve met him and talked to him a couple times. He doesn’t come across as a politician to me. He comes across as someone who cares about everyone, regardless of race or economic status.” The Citizens Militia is a grassroots groups that “aims to protect the Constitution,” Turner said, and hosts regular training sessions with weapons.
Deborah Simpson, director of Mississippi ballot initiative 62, which aims to protect the state flag, said, “I’m supporting Chris McDaniel because he believes in democracy. He believes in the integrity of past elections. He understands what’s important to Mississippians.”
McDaniel took aim at Wicker on the flag issue, one that is likely to be a wedge in the primary fight. In a television appearance with U.S. Sen. Corey Booker, a New Jersey Democrat, whom McDaniel called a liberal, Wicker called for the state flag to be retired to a museum. McDaniel pointed to the 2001 referendum in which voters declined to choose a new flag.
“The people have already spoken and until they speak again, we’re going to keep that flag,” McDaniel said.
As Senate Republicans across the country brace for tough challenges from within the right fringes of their own party, some Democrats even in traditionally red states are seeing a window of opportunity.
Remember Mississippi super PAC, which has already raised $1 million for McDaniel’s Senate bid celebrated the announcement in a press release.
“We are thrilled that Chris McDaniel has decided to run for the U.S. Senate in Mississippi,” said the statement from Tommy Barnett, the group’s treasurer. “McDaniel is a true conservative and reflects Mississippi values, where his opponent plainly does not.”
The press release noted that McDaniel favors tight control of immigration, choosing spending cuts over raising the national debt limit and states’ rights, as evidenced by McDaniel’s opposition to retiring the current state flag.
“The time for career politicians is over,” the statement concluded. “When Senator Wicker was elected to federal office, Windows 95 had just been released and the OJ Simpson trial had captured the attention of the country. It’s time for new leadership in Mississippi.”
After McDaniel’s announcement, David Baria, Democratic leader in the state House of Representatives, also jumped into the race.
Baria told Mississippi Today on Monday that McDaniel’s bid for Wicker’s seat could provide “a unique dynamic that leads me to believe (a Democratic victory) might be achievable.”
Here in Jones County, McDaniel seems eager for what is certain to be a dramatic Republican primary.
“There are a few conservatives in the U.S. Senate. Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, Rand Paul. They fight as hard as they can fight,” McDaniel said. “They need help, don’t they? Do you think that help’s going to come from Massachusetts? California? If we can’t find strong, conservative warriors from the Deep South, we won’t find them.”