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For months, U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker’s campaign had been planning for a primary challenge from Chris McDaniel, the conservative anti-establishment’s darling.
Wicker spent hundreds of thousands of dollars moving himself into battle-ready position. He lined up endorsements from people who publicly supported McDaniel in 2014 when he nearly upset U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran. He pushed digital and television ads countering Facebook posts McDaniel broadcast to his base of social media followers.
Then McDaniel flipped races, announcing he would instead run to fill out the remaining two years of the seat Cochran resigned in April. The seat is now held by Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith thanks to a Gov. Phil Bryant appointment.
Though Wicker’s campaign manager Justin Brassell assured Mississippi Today that “we’re taking the primary very seriously,” the McDaniel flip-flop shifted the Wicker camp’s outlook of the June primary from a potentially tough moment to a cakewalk against little-known candidate, Richard Boyanton.
“We’ve been focusing our positive message on Senator Wicker’s conservative accomplishments to grow our economy, cut taxes, confirm conservative judges, secure our border and protect our country,” Brassell said in a phone interview.
That focus is evident. Wicker’s campaign has pushed social media videos, pairing the senator with Trump and other top Republican leaders in Washington. Wicker, who as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee was instrumental in the Senate retaining its Republican majority in the 2016 elections, received an endorsement from the first-term president.
“I will continue to work with President Trump to grow our economy and create more jobs in Mississippi,” Wicker wrote in a Facebook post, then urged readers to click on his campaign donation page.
“When I was a State Senator, I authored legislation that was signed into law providing for a 24-hour waiting period for abortions in Mississippi,” Wicker wrote in another post. “I am 100% pro-life and committed to advancing pro-life policies in D.C.”
The campaign has boosted several advertisements highlighting Wicker’s own military service. A banner at the top of his Facebook page reads: “Respect our anthem. Respect our military. Respect our country.”
Boyanton, a little-known 68-year-old small businessman from Diamondhead, is running to Wicker’s right, which well suits the Wicker campaign’s defensive strategy that had already been put in place for the potential McDaniel matchup.
For his part, Boyanton has drawn some financial and social media support directly from McDaniel’s base, he said – though Boyanton didn’t seem to know much about McDaniel in early April.
“I believe Chris McDaniel will make Mississippi proud,” Boyanton tweeted on April 8. “The more I listen to him the more I like.”
Another issue Boyanton has attempted to exploit is his support for the state flag, which is the last in the nation containing the Confederate battle emblem. Wicker has said he wants to change the flag, while many white conservatives – many of them McDaniel supports – have pledged their opposition to Wicker over the issue.
Boyanton, seemingly echoing McDaniel’s continued support of keeping the state flag, has said the state should uphold the 2001 ballot initiative results in which 64 percent of voters voted to keep the current state flag design.
“Roger Wicker is just too liberal for me,” Boyanton told Mississippi Today this week. “I just couldn’t stand to sit this one out.”
Having loaned his own campaign $60,000 from his retirement fund, Boyanton’s low-profile campaign hasn’t gotten much, if any, penetration across the state. He reported just $250 in contributions in the first quarter of the year, though he says he has raised more than $10,000 during the second quarter.
Wicker has not publicly spoken or written Boyanton’s name, nor has he even lobbed an indirect reference at his Republican primary opponent. The two candidates have not debated, and Boyanton said the only time the two met was a handshake and a brief conversation at a Gulf Coast television station.
“I’m just trying to get by and see what I can do,” Boyanton said. “I’m doing this for my grandkids and great grandkids.”
Assuming Wicker wins the June primary, the focus of his campaign will shift to countering the platform ideas of one of three top Democrats vying for the nomination: State House minority leader Rep. David Baria, longtime state Rep. Omeria Scott, and venture capitalist Howard Sherman.
On the night of the Nov. 6 general election, both Senate seats will be up for grabs. A special election to finish out the two years left in the term of the seat held by Hyde-Smith will cast intense national scrutiny – and likely a barrage of out-of-state spending – on the state’s midterms.
As Washington Republicans try to keep majority of the Senate out of the hands of Democrats and stave off attacks from the right fringes of their own party, Wicker’s re-election is not a given.
“We are confident our message will be heard by voters in spite of the attention paid to the special election and the activity of outside groups,” Brassell said. “We will run a very active and visible campaign this fall.”
“Senator Wicker is taking nothing for granted and knows we must earn every vote.”