Chris McDaniel knows the power of fear as well as anyone.
In the summer of 1999, when McDaniel was a 27-year-old federal judicial clerk, he went to Jackson to help his father buy a new Jeep Grand Cherokee.
On the trip home, between Collins and their hometown of Ellisville, McDaniel, driving separately, turned behind his father onto Highway 588. The McDaniels had driven the narrow, two-lane highway hundreds of times. But at 11 p.m., even the most familiar country roads can surprise you.
McDaniel has replayed the scene thousands of times in his head: The darkness ahead of his father’s headlights pierced suddenly by a white wall. An 18-wheeler with no lights on backing into a driveway blocking the highway. The collision between his father’s SUV and the truck. McDaniel swerving to avoid hitting the wreck then climbing out and sprinting to the accident. His father’s final, “I love you.” McDaniel’s realization that his dad was gone.
For years after the accident, which McDaniel considers a defining moment in his life, he was gripped by fear of life without his father Carlos, a locally beloved professor and basketball coach at Jones County Junior College, and of what might lie ahead.
“I asked, ‘How could he be taken?’” McDaniel remembers thinking after the accident. “More importantly, why was I there to be part of it? I questioned God, I questioned my existence, I questioned the need for pain and why we had to go through these things.”
Since that night, fear of unknown and unknowable perils out on the horizon has shaped McDaniel’s life and, eventually, became a hallmark of his political philosophy.
It’s why he first ran for public office, the state Senate in 2007. It’s why he speaks in cautionary metaphors and invokes despair on the campaign trail. It’s why he looked at his family — his wife, Jill, and sons, Chamberlain and Cambridge — from the podium just seconds before he announced his 2018 U.S. Senate campaign and warned them that his political battles were even likely to spill over into their lives.
It’s why he has pushed ultra-conservative legislation during his tenure as a lawmaker and makes incendiary comments on television and radio. It’s why he has worked hard to sell the notion that his political opponents are afraid of him. It’s why he reminds his supporters of the dangers that lie ahead should their brand of nationalistic politics not prevail.
“We are fighting for the survival of our republic. It may sound extreme, but I feel very strongly about that,” McDaniel told Mississippi Today. “Because the combat takes place on the floor of the Senate via debates and discourse, we need to send the strongest people we can to carry a message. That’s what I want to do, and that’s what I’m capable of doing. These are pivotal moments in our country’s history.”
‘It’s very scary’
On a recent Wednesday, with guns holstered to their hips, three men wearing sunglasses and “Citizens Militia of Mississippi” T-shirts walked up a hill toward Mississippi’s only abortion clinic, in Jackson. Among them was McDaniel, who made his way toward a podium set up during a pro-life rally of about three dozen people taking place outside the clinic.
As Election Day approaches, McDaniel is doing at least one event a day to hammer home the coming ruin if he is unsuccessful in his latest bid for U.S. Senate. This year, he’s running in an officially nonpartisan special election against fellow Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith and Democrats Mike Espy, a former congressman and Clinton cabinet member, and Tobey Bartee of Gautier.
While onlookers held large photographs of fetuses and “Chris McDaniel for Senate” signs, McDaniel, 47, took the podium.
“If we can’t value life from conception to natural death, then we devalue life,” McDaniel said. “And we shouldn’t be surprised if after all of these years of treating one another like nothing more than material, we turn angry and we devalue one another and we’re unable to have good, strong political discourse without anger or fear.”
For his base, McDaniel’s rhetoric of impending doom resonates.
“It’s very scary,” Laura Van Overschelde, president of the Mississippi Tea Party and an influential surrogate of McDaniel, said after the abortion rally, referring to America’s future. “If people don’t wake up, we don’t have a hope to reconstruct this country to its greatness as President Trump says he wants to do and as Mr. McDaniel intends to support. His opponents have been willing to go along to get along. We can’t let them any longer.”
In the minds of McDaniel and his supporters, his opponents represent the political ruling class, which they believe has the country on a wrong course — at least they did until Trump came along.
In fact, recent poll results underscore that a significant portion of Mississippians similarly distrust the federal government. Results of an NBC News/SurveyMonkey earlier this year allude to that, showing just 4 percent of Mississippians just about always trust the state government to do what is right. Twenty-two percent said they trust state government most of the time and 31 percent said about half of the time.
The right thing to do, for McDaniel, is guided by writings of the architects of American conservatism. On the stump, he regularly invokes early figures, such as Edmund Burke, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison (although McDaniel does not reckon with their espousal of liberty while upholding the institution of slavery) and boasts adherence to their principles of government. He also beams about those principles helping mold the modern Republican Party and its founders, such as Ronald Reagan, Barry Goldwater and William Buckley.
Total allegiance to ideological purity is central to McDaniel’s message.
“Republicans governing like Democrats aren’t doing us any justice,” McDaniel told Mississippi Today in September. “They’re doing as much as the Democrats are to move the political spectrum of this country. We are a people who are supposed to fight for something, and it’s time we fight. What does it say about us if we don’t?”
Like Goldwater and Reagan, who built their power bases by stoking the economic anxieties and racial fears of white Southerners, McDaniel speaks directly to the hand wringing of white Mississippians over losing a sense of heritage.
That is most evident in McDaniel’s strong opposition to changing the Mississippi state flag, which contains a Confederate emblem and is incorporated into some pro-McDaniel campaign literature, and his immigration policies.
Earlier this year, McDaniel called a small press conference in efforts to pressure Sen. Hyde-Smith to support building a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico. In that press conference, he proposed halting even legal immigration, which Trump this week indicated he might explore through an executive order.
“We should not grant birthright citizenship to illegal aliens,” McDaniel wrote on Facebook after Trump’s comments, quoting the 14th Amendment, which Congress enacted in 1868 to protect the rights of newly freed African Americans.
“The clause ‘subject to the jurisdiction thereof’ is an important phrase. For the same reason that children of diplomats and invading armies (or caravans) would not be citizens, children of illegal immigrants should not be either. All of these children are not ‘subject to the jurisdiction’ of our country because they and their parents owe their first allegiance to a foreign power.
McDaniel first began making a name for himself in 2009 – just his second year in the state Senate.
The previous year, Republican Gov. Haley Barbour had vetoed a bill restricting the ability of corporations to take private land through eminent domain.
The champion of the anti-privatization effort was third-term state Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, then a Democrat from Brookhaven, who had worked with the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation to craft the legislation. Among the staunchest supporters of Hyde-Smith’s push was McDaniel, who characterized Barbour’s veto as overreach and, along with Hyde-Smith, unsuccessfully campaigned to override the governor.
“I’m doing something I never thought I’d be doing and that is voting to override a governor I admire and respect,” McDaniel told the Mississippi Business Journal in 2009.
Much has changed in the nine years since: McDaniel now considers Hyde-Smith an enemy of true conservatives and Barbour an establishment bogeyman who enabled her appointment.
Bucking the establishment has not exactly helped McDaniel as a legislator, however. McDaniel’s state senate career consists of two phases, split by his 2014 campaign against Cochran.
Before 2014, 36 of the 200 bills McDaniel authored saw passage — a success rate of 18 percent, well above the average for most of his colleagues. Many of the bills McDaniel pushed during that period mirror the themes he stresses during the campaign. For example, in 2008, his first year in office, he authored a bill that would force “an alien of a foreign country” to pay out-of-state tuition at public universities. In 2009, he authored a bill that would revoke Medicaid payments from recipients who failed a nicotine test. Both of those bills died in committee.
In 2012, after McDaniel won a second term, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves appointed McDaniel as chairman of the Elections Committee and had a powerful ally in his friend and newly elected Gov. Phil Bryant, who previous presided over the Senate. McDaniel’s legislative success peaked during Bryant’s first two years as governor in 2012 and 2013.
In 2013, he authored two gun-rights bills known as the “Second Amendment Preservation Act” and “Firearm Protection Act,” both aiming to “prevent federal infringement on the right to keep and bear arms.” That same year, a third McDaniel bill would have prohibited state or local governments from enabling federal gun and ammunition bans. All three bills died in committee.
Also in 2013, he authored an unsuccessful bill that would exempt children from needing to be vaccinated to attend school, if parents submit documentation showing that administering vaccines is “contrary to his or her beliefs.”
But since 2014, when McDaniel drew the ire of the party establishment after a bitter primary contest against Cochran, McDaniel has authored 200 bills and resolutions, only two of which the governor has signed. One was a commendation for the 2014 Laurel High School football team’s state championship, the other commended Laurel native Erin Morgan, crowned 2015 Miss Hospitality.
Still, McDaniel continued pushing conservative legislation. Twice, for example, he authored bills that would require recipients of public assistance to complete mandatory community service. In 2016, he wrote a bill that would prohibit state agencies from complying with any executive order from President Barack Obama.
In 2017, he sponsored a bill to require public universities to fly the state flag and would withhold salaries from presidents of the universities who furled the flag. He also authored a bill that would replace Common Core curriculum with the English-Language-Arts standards that were in place before Common Core’s implementation in 2010.
When he chaired the Elections Committee during his primary run against Cochran during the 2014 session, McDaniel was assigned a handful of bills. In the 2015 session, the last session of that term, McDaniel’s committee wasn’t assigned a single bill; afterwards, Reeves reassigned McDaniel to head the less influential Constitutional Committee, which has not passed a bill this term.
A page from the Trump playbook
Down in recent polls, with considerably less money to spend than his opponents and feeling the need to blanket the state, McDaniel says he has had to get creative.
In mid-September, McDaniel arrived for an interview with Mississippi Today at an Oxford bar with the bill of his Boston Red Sox cap pulled down to eye level. After apologizing for his dressed down attire, consisting of jeans and a T-shirt, and ordering an IPA and a plate of deviled eggs, McDaniel talked about his strategy to overcome his opponents’ war chests.
That strategy involves hosting five or six town halls every week in the months before Election Day, posting several times per day on Facebook and Twitter and putting a cell phone number online so voters can contact him directly. Direct contact with voters (or at least the perception of it) was crucial during the successful 2016 campaign of President Donald Trump whom McDaniel supported after his original pick, Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, left the race.
McDaniel talked at length about Trump’s strategy of manipulating media outlets by making inflammatory statements, knowing his words would be published by news organizations across America.
“Jeb Bush raised $100 million to run for president in 2016, and Trump didn’t raise much money at all, at least at first,” McDaniel said, ignoring the fact that as a multi-billionaire Trump didn’t need to raise large sums of money out of the gate. “But he found new ways to be among the people, whether it be Twitter or the press or whatever. We’re using Trump’s model to be around the people, meet the people, and let them carry the message to their communities.”
Less than 12 hours after the interview at the bar, McDaniel seemingly put that plan into action on a live taping of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” television show, which broadcast from Oxford.
(Disclosure: “Morning Joe” hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski were later featured speakers at a Mississippi Today sponsored fundraising event).
When Mississippi native and Princeton professor Eddie Glaude, a panelist, asked McDaniel how he would represent African Americans in Mississippi, who make up 38 percent of the state’s population, the senator said:
“I am going to ask them, after 100 years, after 100 years of relying on big government to save you, where are you today? After 100 years of begging for federal government scraps, where are you today?”
The sound bite made national headlines, drawing sharp rebukes including from top Republicans such as Gov. Phil Bryant. But the McDaniel camp later told Mississippi Today the moment was a boon.
“We’ve been absolutely inundated with phone calls, emails, text messages and Facebook messages from Mississippians in every corner of the state telling us that they were unsure of their vote in this race prior to (the MSNBC interview), but after seeing Chris take a stand for Mississippians and tell the truth, they’re 100 percent on board with Chris McDaniel,” Tanner Watson, McDaniel’s communications director, told Mississippi Today.
The episode underscored that McDaniel is far from the reckless gaffe machine as some critics, even in his own party, have attempted to paint him. Rather, he carefully crafts his actions and words. He understands that conservative Mississippians prefer bluntness — even when perceived as offensive to some — to scripts. He understands exploiting grievances over “political correctness” can often fire up and even grow his base. He has learned how to pitch himself as the champion of conservatives who feel marginalized or threatened.
“Doesn’t matter what the press says. Doesn’t matter what the politicians or the mobs say. Doesn’t matter if the whole country decides that something wrong is something right. This nation was founded on one principle above all else: The requirement that we stand up for what we believe, no matter the odds or the consequences,” McDaniel posted last year on Facebook, which serves as the hub for his base.
With that focus, McDaniel is meeting his supporters where they are.
“I’m very much afraid for the future,” said Vince Thornton, a McDaniel supporter from Collins. “Chris McDaniel not only says he shares that sentiment, but he’s able to convince me he’s actually telling me the truth when he says he’ll stop continuing the same old ways. He actually believes it.”
Although the race featured no primary, most political observers say that Election Day will serve to determine which Republican — Hyde-Smith or McDaniel — will advance to a runoff with Espy.
The notion has led to a kind of intraparty warfare. Anticipating this, the Hyde-Smith campaign hired veteran strategists who have gone to battle against McDaniel before. In 2014, Jordan Russell, Hyde-Smith’s current campaign manager, was a spokesman for U.S. Sen Thad Cochran, whom McDaniel challenged in the Republican primary and nearly beat. Because Cochran was not made available to the press, Russell became Cochran’s voice and a sharp McDaniel critic.
“You can pretty much tell he’s lying when his mouth moves,” Russell told The Clarion-Ledger in 2014.
By far the biggest moment for McDaniel’s 2018 Senate bid so far came when his campaign leaked a secretly recorded video of Hyde-Smith explaining to constituents why she would not debate McDaniel. In the video, Hyde-Smith echoed her campaign manager’s remarks from four years earlier.
“Please don’t believe his lies. If his lips are moving, he’s lying and he’s got people that can’t think for themselves and they believe (him),” Hyde-Smith said in the video.
The clip, which was broadcast across the state and even by some Washington, D.C., outlets, handed the McDaniel campaign ammunition sharpen their criticism of Hyde-Smith, who has repeatedly brushed off McDaniel’s many calls for debate. Even Espy, the Democrat, cancelled a debate with McDaniel after Hyde-Smith refused to join.
When asked if Hyde-Smith is scared to debate McDaniel, Hyde-Smith spokeswoman Melissa Scallan said: “Absolutely not. She is not afraid to debate at all. Chris McDaniel is running out of time, running out of money and he is just trying to garner free publicity. We are not going to give him a platform to continue spreading lies about Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith.”
The Hyde-Smith campaign has also called in a second McDaniel expert, consultant Justin Brasell, who’s also running the campaign of Sen. Roger Wicker, who is also up for reelection and is facing Democratic state Rep. David Baria of Bay St. Louis.
For more than a year before the February 2018 filing deadline for federal elections, McDaniel publicly flirted with a Wicker primary challenge. So Brasell — a veteran Republican operative who managed campaigns for current Republican U.S. Sens. Mitch McConnell, John Thune and Tom Cotton — had spent months preparing Wicker for a primary challenge against McDaniel.
The potentially explosive effect of the divisive race with Hyde-Smith is so great that even close legislative allies of McDaniel’s declined to be interviewed for this story.
McDaniel believes that party mainstreamers deploying their most experienced foot soldiers against him is proof-positive that they fear him.
However, he maintains that he is unafraid.
“I’ve seen the worst thing a son can see,” McDaniel said, referring to the 1999 car accident that killed his father. “You think Mitch McConnell scares me? You think Haley Barbour scares me? I’ve already seen the very worst thing they could do. I’m not afraid of them. There’s nothing of theirs that I want. They’ve spent millions between 2014 and now defaming me, attacking me, undermining my credibility. I owe them nothing, and I have no fear of them. That’s why they fear me.”