SOUTHAVEN, Miss. — In the battle for the heart, soul and future of the Mississippi Republican Party, DeSoto County is a beachhead.

Consider: State Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Ellisville, the anti-establishment conservative gunning for the U.S. Senate in November, won DeSoto County by 40 points in the 2014 primary runoff against U.S. Senate stalwart Thad Cochran. 

Given his prior performance there, DeSoto County, the state’s third most populous county and a Republican hotbed, appears to be McDaniel’s to lose. In the 2014 race against Cochran, he drew more than 13,500 votes — more votes than he earned in any other county in the state.

For that reason, later Tuesday evening, an unprecedented scene will play out when a Republican president visits one of the most Republican counties in one of the nation’s reddest states to stump for an incumbent senator who is endorsed by party fathers, including Gov. Phil Bryant and senior U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker. 

A poll released Tuesday by NBC News/SurveyMonkey in conjunction with Mississippi Today is cause for even more hand wringing for Hyde-Smith and establishment Republicans.

If the officially nonpartisan special election to fill the rest of Cochran’s term were held today, according to the poll, 25 percent of respondents would vote for Democratic candidate Mike Espy while 24 percent of respondents would vote for Hyde-Smith, 19 percent would vote for McDaniel and 4 percent would vote for Democratic candidate Tobey Bartee.

Most remarkably, a substantial 27 percent of respondents remain undecided about who they’ll vote for, the poll shows.

“At the risk of quoting Donald Trump, the visit is yuge,” said John Caldwell, the DeSoto County chairman for Hyde-Smith’s campaign. “It’s going to make a big difference in the vote up here. Don’t get me wrong, we’re not discounting the fact that there are some opposing viewpoints we’ve got to contend with, but he (McDaniel) won’t get anywhere near the support this year that he got in 2014.”

McDaniel, a strong Trump supporter, has had to contend with the president’s endorsement of his opponent. In a campaign email last week, McDaniel told his supporters to attend the October 2 rally – a move that has worried members of Hyde-Smith’s campaign team, sources say.

Even before Trump endorsed Hyde-Smith on Twitter on Aug. 23, McDaniel downplayed the president’s support for the incumbent, saying that Trump had to endorse establishment Republicans to stay in the good graces of Republican congressional leaders.

“We really don’t feel like this visit is going to impact Chris McDaniel in any way,” said Brian Hodges, DeSoto County chairman for the McDaniel campaign. “What I’m seeing right now is the support for Chris McDaniel is even stronger than it was in 2014. The crowds get larger. The excitement of the supporters is just amazing. We’ve got an incredible ground game going right now, and we don’t feel like we’re going to get beat by anyone in November.”

Local Republican leaders in DeSoto County remain split on support of Hyde-Smith and McDaniel.

State Sen. David Parker, R-Olive Branch, was a top DeSoto County sergeant for McDaniel in 2014. This year, he is supporting Hyde-Smith.

Sen. David Parker, R-Olive Branch Credit: Gil Ford Photography

“Every year is a different campaign. With the election coming up, we have two Republicans in the campaign,” Parker said. “As a Republican, you have to select the one you think is right for the time. Depending on how the first primary goes, we’ll see, but right now, some of the things I hold most dear to me, I feel like President Trump has done a good job (on). I’m supporting his chosen candidate.”

State Rep. Steve Hopkins, R-Southaven, supported McDaniel in 2014 and is sticking with him this year.

“I will always support the most conservative candidate, and Chris is the proven conservative,” Hopkins said. “It (McDaniel’s message) was new in 2014, so the excitement might have felt like it was more because it was fresh. We were gonna have this bold, new conservative candidate. But I really think it’s the same this year. There have been pretty good crowds come out in DeSoto County when Chris speaks.”

For his part, McDaniel is looking forward to his supporters showing up in Southaven and showing up to the polls next month.

“Given that Cindy Hyde-Smith is a lifelong Democrat who voted for Hillary Clinton, we’re confident DeSoto will turn out in force for our campaign again,” McDaniel told Mississippi Today. “Probably more so than in 2014.”

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Adam Ganucheau

Adam Ganucheau

Adam Ganucheau, as Mississippi Today's editor-in-chief, oversees the newsroom and works with the editorial team to fulfill our mission of producing high-quality journalism in the public interest. Adam has covered politics and state government for Mississippi Today since February 2016. A native of Hazlehurst, Adam has worked as a staff reporter for AL.com, The Birmingham News and The Clarion-Ledger and his work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Adam earned his bachelor’s in journalism from the University of Mississippi.