Gov. Phil Bryant walked on stage on Election Day and made a bold prediction: He would help convince 145,000 Chris McDaniel voters to throw their support to his one-time opponent Cindy Hyde-Smith.
“We’re going to get all the McDaniel folks,” Bryant told the Hyde-Smith supporters. “We’re going to get Chris on the stump, on the MAGA bus with me and Cindy Hyde-Smith. That ought to be a special moment. And I’m going to work hard on that. I’m going to bring everybody together. We are a team, we are a family.”
Since Bryant’s prediction, however, McDaniel had remained ambivalent. McDaniel received several overtures this week from representatives of the Hyde-Smith campaign to help, according to several people close to McDaniel. Then on Friday evening, President Donald Trump rang.
“We laughed. We were lighthearted. Then we were serious. Through it all, he was encouraging,” McDaniel wrote on Facebook on Sunday evening.
Looking to shore up support from the McDaniel faithful, Republican operatives in Mississippi hope that two strategic visits by Trump on Monday can do the trick. Trump, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Hyde-Smith and Vice President Mike Pence on Monday, will speak at a Tupelo rally at 4 p.m. and a Biloxi rally at 8 p.m.
It is unclear if McDaniel, who did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this story, will attend either rally.
The two locations were selected with numbers in mind: On Election Day, about 35,000 Mississippians living in counties within a 100 square mile radius of Tupelo cast votes for McDaniel, and he earned about 37,000 votes within a 100 square mile radius of Biloxi. With just 8,000 total votes separating Espy and Hyde-Smith on Election Day, the McDaniel voters are key to the strategy to win.
“(Trump’s visit) is part and parcel of making sure the 57 percent of Republicans who showed up to vote in the last election show up to vote on Tuesday,” Lucien Smith, the state’s GOP chairman, told Mississippi Today on Saturday.
On the same night Bryant made his promise, McDaniel asked his supporters to “unite and support Cindy Hyde-Smith.” But many of McDaniel’s staunchest supporters in recent days have struggled to reconcile months of attacks the Hyde-Smith campaign lobbed against their candidate and peers.
And as controversy has mounted for Hyde-Smith since Election Day, the possibility of strong Hyde-Smith support among the McDaniel base has cooled.
“We have no good choices,” said Laura Van Overschelde, the leader of the Mississippi Tea Party and a staunch McDaniel supporter. “The behavior of the governor over the past eight months has surely shown us that he has Mississippians below his political influence. That’s absolutely a travesty. I have tweeted to Donald Trump to tell him he was misguided in his (Hyde-Smith) endorsement, and I still believe that.
“Any vote cast for Cindy Hyde-Smith or Mike Espy will prevail to their interests,” Overschelde continued. “The people have been left out of this election. Donald Trump should know that. I think he does. That is the travesty they have brought upon us by putting up candidates such as (Cindy Hyde-Smith). She is totally unimpressed with the idea that she has to be accountable to the people and the press, and she’s shown that over and over again.”
GOP fathers and senior staffers in the Hyde-Smith campaign realize they may face an uphill battle. They spent months and millions chipping away at McDaniel’s political brand. They demonized him in statewide television ads. They kept McDaniel supporters at arm’s length when planning Republican rallies. They attacked his brand of conservatism and highlighted his many controversial comments.
“Please don’t believe his lies,” Hyde-Smith said of McDaniel in a secretly recorded video at an October campaign event. “If his lips are moving, he’s lying. He’s got people that can’t think for themselves and they believe it.”
Even Trump himself snubbed McDaniel before the election. The main purpose of Trump’s October visit to Southaven was to steal away McDaniel’s base of support in DeSoto County, where McDaniel earned more votes in 2014 than in any other county. At that rally, the president did not mention McDaniel.
Dozens of McDaniel supporters who attended the rally wore “Trump Voters for Chris McDaniel” T-shirts and were asked by security to turn them inside-out upon entering the arena. The Hyde-Smith campaign later said that was a directive of the Trump campaign, which organized the rally.
McDaniel himself acknowledged that Trump’s Southaven visit was the death knell for his 2018 campaign.
“It was the most difficult obstacle we faced,” McDaniel told Mississippi Today. “When Trump endorsed her, he took so many Mississippians that normally would have gravitated toward our campaign. But they simply took his marching orders and did what he asked them to do.”
On McDaniel’s Facebook page, which serves as the hub for his base, his supporters are expressing mixed emotions about Tuesday’s runoff.
One supporter posted: “I really hate that so many good Mississippi Republicans have to go into the voting booth on Tuesday and hold our noses and vote for a person we have no confidence in.” Another poster: “He backed the wrong horse in the race and is now scrambling to keep the ship afloat. Having said that, I’ll vote for CHS because the alternative is much, much worse.” Another poster: “So torn about the runoff, I feel like voting for either candidate is like voting for everything I’m against. It’s like a vote for the swamp instead of against it.”
Less than 15 hours before polls open, McDaniel had still not announced whether he’ll campaign with Hyde-Smith and Trump at the Tupelo and Biloxi rallies on Monday.
“Chris asked his supporters to unite behind Hyde-Smith, and apparently she thinks that alone will do the trick,” said Keith Plunkett, a close McDaniel friend who runs the conservative blog Mississippi PEP. “I think Chris would be the first person to tell you he doesn’t have many who would be considered blind supporters. They expect to be engaged in a discussion.”