LAUREL — As Chris McDaniel hopped in his wife’s SUV in Ellisville on Tuesday night to break the bad news to his supporters gathered at a watch party in Laurel, his campaign communications director Tanner Watson received a text message from a senior adviser to Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith and Gov. Phil Bryant.
“Chris have any interest in talking to Phil?” the adviser texted Watson.
For years, McDaniel has been a thorn in the side of establishment Republicans in Mississippi. He’s built his political career on tearing down figures like Hyde-Smith. Among GOP operatives, the traumatic effects of McDaniel’s near victory in 2014 and his splitting of the party still linger.
As polls in recent weeks indicated McDaniel’s inability to gain traction, Republican Party insiders stopped asking, “Can McDaniel beat us on November 6?” and started asking, “Can we win on November 27 without McDaniel’s help?”
The conversation Bryant wanted to have with McDaniel almost certainly would have focused on the latter question. The two never connected before McDaniel took the stage, and Bryant and party insiders at the Hyde-Smith headquarters in Jackson gathered around phones and laptops to watch live streams of McDaniel’s concession speech.
As it turned out, McDaniel didn’t need the nudge by Bryant.
“We now have to unite,” McDaniel told the crowd of teary-eyed and disappointed supporters. “Mr. Espy cannot be allowed to win this seat. President Trump wants us to unite, and we will unite. We will back Cindy Hyde-Smith. Now I don’t agree with her. I don’t believe she’s the conservative for this state. But I can tell you unequivocally that Mike Espy has no business being anywhere near the United States Senate. We unite now under Trump’s umbrella. We unite now to fight for his party, and we have to win this battle for the state of our country.”
With those words, Republicans breathed a heavy sigh of relief. Based on preliminary results from Tuesday night, Hyde-Smith enjoyed a small 7,000-vote margin over Espy, a Democrat whom Hyde-Smith faces in a runoff on Nov. 27. Their chances would have been further complicated had McDaniel not directly pleaded with the 145,000 Mississippians who voted for him to vote for Hyde-Smith.
“Before I get too busy talking about Democrats, I want to thank Chris McDaniel,” Bryant said at the Hyde-Smith watch party stage just a few minutes after McDaniel’s concession speech. “I just saw him on Facebook a little while ago, and he said, ‘It’s time for us to come together.’ Chris was a young senator when I was lieutenant governor. We don’t agree on everything, but neither do me and (First Lady) Deborah. But what we do agree on is that Mike Espy doesn’t need to get within 100 miles of the United States Capitol. That’s not going to happen.”
Before November 6, Republicans spent little energy or resources countering Espy’s message. Viewing Election Day more as the pseudo Republican primary, GOP operatives knew that once they got past McDaniel they could turn their full focus to Espy.
With a united front, Republicans now turn their full attention to Espy. Beginning Wednesday morning, a pro Hyde-Smith Super PAC called the Mississippi Victory Fund began airing attack ads on television and radio across the state.
“Espy will vote no on the Trump agenda, aligning with the leftist mob who oppose the President,” the ad’s narrator says. “Espy already sided with the radical left, opposing Judge Kavanaugh. Next, they’ll demand he support open borders and abolish ICE. On November 27, the choice is clear – say no to Mike Espy.”
On stage at the Hyde-Smith event Tuesday night, Bryant said McDaniel would join the Hyde-Smith campaign on a bus tour across the state, pointing out that “when it all comes down to what you believe in, we believe in the same things.”
In a phone call Wednesday afternoon, McDaniel didn’t discount the idea but said he had not talked to the governor or anyone on the Hyde-Smith campaign about the bus tour.
“I don’t mind assisting at all,” McDaniel said. “I think it’s clear that I don’t believe she’s the conservative Mississippi needs, but I also believe Mr. Espy has a dangerous political philosophy. Because of that, I’m willing to do what I can to help (Hyde-Smith).”