Sen. Chris McDaniel soared to prominence battling establishment Republicans. Now he’s endorsing longtime foe Tate Reeves for governor

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Rogelio V. Solis, Associated Press

U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., right, and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves celebrate Cochran’s runoff election win over state Sen. Chris McDaniel of Ellisville, in the primary runoff for the GOP nomination for senate, Tuesday, June 24, 2014 in Jackson, Miss.

State Sen. Chris McDaniel, the tea party firebrand long at odds with what he calls the “political establishment,” endorsed Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves over Bill Waller Jr. on Thursday in the Republican primary runoff for governor.

Reading from prepared remarks, McDaniel railed against growing the size of government, an apparent reference to Waller’s openness to Medicaid expansion allowed under the Affordable Care Act, which Waller calls reform. Reeves has seized on Waller’s position, calling it support for expanding Obamacare; he continued hammering that point Thursday at the event in McDaniel’s home of Jones County.

“I believe that you cannot be for more Obamacare expansion in Mississippi, that you cannot be for raising taxes on hardworking Mississippi families to grow government and grow the beast. You cannot run for office and make promises that you cannot keep by promising other people’s money to this group or that group,” Reeves said.

The endorsement from McDaniel, who lost U.S. Senate races in 2014 and 2018, comes less than two weeks before voters will decide on August 27 whether Reeves or Waller will be the Republican nominee for the November governor’s race.

McDaniel, who said Thursday he had been warned that supporting Reeves could finish him in politics, teased the scheduled endorsement on his Facebook page Wednesday evening, criticizing Waller’s positions on expanding Medicaid through the Affordable Care Act and increasing the state’s fuel tax.

“The clear dividing line is how (conservatives) view the power of government,” McDaniel wrote. “True conservatives share a desire for less government interference, less centralized authority, and more individual freedom. Hence, it is impossible to claim the mantle of conservatism while favoring Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion or a gas tax increase.”

The embrace of Reeves stands in stark contrast to McDaniel’s political identity and career built around the persona of a candidate who could take on the establishment. In 2014, his “political outsider” message resonated with Republican voters across the state as he nearly defeated longtime U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran. In 2018, he continued that message in a special U.S. Senate race for the seat Cochran vacated upon retirement.

While serving in the state Senate since 2008, McDaniel has been a vocal critic of Republican leaders — regularly focusing his attacks on Reeves — for being controlled by interest groups and prominent political families. Reeves has endorsements from nearly every key interest group in the state and enjoys support from former Gov. Haley Barbour, one of McDaniel’s longtime stated adversary.

“Yes, of course political endorsements matter,” McDaniel posted on Facebook on July 19. “If the establishment endorses someone, then you should know that candidate is owned by the establishment. A price is paid for those backroom deals. If you want to drain the swamp, you can’t do it by making deals with the establishment — or by supporting their hand-selected candidates.”

McDaniel and Reeves’ relationship has long been fraught with public attacks and intense wrangling for political power — a fact both men acknowledge. McDaniel said “no one has more reasons to be displeased” with Reeves than himself while Reeves quipped:

“It comes as no great shock or surprise to anyone here today, or anyone watching, that Chris and I hadn’t always agreed on every single issue and we hadn’t always been on the same side of every single race.”

In fact, the two have publicly sparred in the state Capitol for years, prompting McDaniel to go as far as publicly discussing the notion of running for governor this year weeks after Reeves had announced his candidacy. 

“I think ultimately Mississippi, in so many ways, is stuck in an old system,” McDaniel told WAPT in February when asked if he would run for governor. “A disproportionate power resides in the same old families and all the old same institutions.”

Reeves held McDaniel at arm’s length for years in the Legislature as McDaniel worked to wrangle some semblance of influence in Mississippi policy and politics. McDaniel, in response to Reeves’ heavy-handed leadership in the state Senate, formed the Conservative Coalition in 2013, a short-lived caucus of 11 Republican senators who Reeves had shut out of the legislative process.

When McDaniel faced Cochran in the bitter 2014 Republican runoff, Reeves publicly endorsed Cochran. After McDaniel lost that race, Reeves, serving as president of the state Senate and the broker of what legislation lives or dies in the upper chamber, killed every inkling of influence that McDaniel previously held in the Legislature. 

‘That’s why they fear me’: Chris McDaniel, with ground to make up, is sticking to a familiar blueprint

Since that bitter 2014 Senate race, McDaniel has authored more than 225 bills and resolutions. Just two made it to Gov. Phil Bryant’s desk for signature: one was a commendation for the 2014 Laurel High School football team’s state championship, and the other commended Laurel native Erin Morgan, crowned 2015 Miss Hospitality. 

McDaniel acknowledged that he had “paid a heavy price” for being a thorn in Reeves’ side. 

Meanwhile, Reeves at times boasted about his defeats of McDaniel. During the 2015 legislative session, McDaniel told reporters that Reeves was blocking his bill that would establish closed primary system in Mississippi. Reeves’ office scoffed at McDaniel’s assertion.

“Like every other member of the Senate, Senator McDaniel has the opportunity to convince his colleagues of the merits of the bills he files,” Reeves spokeswoman Laura Hipp said. “At the end of the day, the only way to affect public policy is rolling up your sleeves and putting in the difficult work of legislating.”

In a 2018 interview with a reporter from U.S. News & World Report, McDaniel acknowledged Reeves’ vindictiveness.

“Since ’14, he’s done everything in his power … to make sure my legislation doesn’t see the light of day,” McDaniel said of Reeves. “If I introduce a bill in a post-’14 environment, the establishment has given the order that if my name is the primary author, to have that bill killed.”

Even before McDaniel’s flirtation with a 2019 governor bid against Reeves, McDaniel also discussed the notion of running against Reeves in the 2015 race for lieutenant governor.

McDaniel’s endorsement of Reeves on Thursday could help Reeves in key counties, particularly in the Pine Belt. McDaniel still carries a great deal of political influence in Jones County, his home county where about 14,000 Republican primary voters cast ballots on August 6.

In the 2018 Senate special election, McDaniel carried 49 percent of the vote in Jones County — his best county performance in the state. More than half of Jones County voters chose against Reeves on August 6, including 4,100 who voted for Waller.

Despite their differences, Reeves added of McDaniel, “I’ve never questioned his belief in conservative principles, and he’s never questioned mine. The reality is we stand on the same side of this race for governor.”

He continued: “We have a shared belief that government is not the answer and I believe strongly that we’re at a crossroads in our state, and we’re at a crossroads in our party. We  as a conservative party in Mississippi has to decide: Are we going to be the part of Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump? Or are we going to be the part of John Kasich and Bill Weld and other never Trumpers?”