Weaponizing Trump? Chris McDaniel strikes dour tone in decision to sit out 2020 U.S. Senate election

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Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

Chris McDaniel speaks to his supporters during a campaign stop on Lakeland Drive in Flowood Monday, November 5, 2018.

Republican State Sen. Chris McDaniel, who has twice sought a U.S. Senate seat since 2014, told Mississippi Today that he will not seek the office again in 2020.

“As long as the GOP establishment is able to weaponize Donald Trump’s endorsement, it makes little sense to challenge Republican incumbents in a primary,” McDaniel said. “President Trump will endorse the sitting officeholder, and the challenger will lose. Period.”

McDaniel, a conservative who has long toyed with establishment Republicans, came in a distant third place in a November 2018 special Senate election for the seat left vacant after longtime U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran retired

That race was set up by the sometimes scandalous nail-biter 2014 Republican primary runoff in which McDaniel rose in political prominence by nearly defeating Cochran.

“The political environment has changed since 2014,” McDaniel said on Tuesday. “Unfortunately, some are more obsessed with watching the D.C. soap opera than they are with addressing conservative priorities. Despite our efforts to drain the swamp, this is a pro-incumbent cycle.”

McDaniel’s outlook signals a shift in tone when discussing President Trump, likely shaped by the experiences of a little more than a year ago.

Trump, who endorsed McDaniel in the 2014 race on Twitter, stumped in Mississippi three times for U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith in 2018 and never mentioned McDaniel.

Trump, who McDaniel worked hard to align himself with in the months leading up to the 2018 Senate race, went on to officially endorse Hyde-Smith. Hyde-Smith eventually won the election in a runoff against former Democratic Congressman Mike Espy.

After McDaniel’s elimination, he endorsed Hyde-Smith, asking his supporters to vote for the conservative in the race. After that race, in early 2019, he told Mississippi Today he might run for statewide office in 2019 and cited several supportive phone calls he had with Trump.

A few hours after the Mississippi Today article published, a conservative news site published a report citing unnamed White House sources who said McDaniel mischaracterized the phone call with Trump. Those sources reportedly said the phone call was a post-election condolence call rather than an open-ended endorsement in future elections.

McDaniel’s anti-establishment bonafides came into question earlier this year when he endorsed Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who was elected the state’s next governor last week, in the close Republican gubernatorial primary against former Chief Justice Bill Waller Jr.

Reeves was the establishment pick in the governor’s race this year, boasting support from dozens of special interest groups that McDaniel has long decried and many of McDaniel’s longtime GOP rivals like former Gov. Haley Barbour. In his statement on Tuesday, McDaniel worked to distance himself from the theory that he’d abandoned his anti-establishment ideals.

“My hope is that one day the people of Mississippi will recognize that the power brokers in D.C. have created a hopelessly dysfunctional system that cares more about empowering bureaucrats and special interests than it does the people of our state,” McDaniel said. “Until then, expect more of the same.”

McDaniel was unopposed earlier this month in a reelection bid to the state Senate. In his fourth legislative term, he will continue to caucus with Republicans.

Hyde-Smith, who filed paperwork to run for reelection earlier this month, could face a Republican primary challenger. Earlier this week, former president of the Miss America Organization Josh Randle told Mississippi Today he is considering a Senate bid in the Republican primary.

“Mississippi needs a true Republican senator with fresh ideas and a clear vision on how to move our state forward,” Randle said in a statement. “We need a senator who is effective, accessible and projects a positive image of our state on the national stage. Mississippi deserves better, and I look forward to exploring whether I am the right person to step forward and run.”

Ridgeland millionaire businessman Gerard Gibert wrote in Facebook comments this week that he would not run for the Senate in 2020. In July, Gibert floated a potential entry into the race.

Candidates for Mississippi’s U.S. Senate and congressional races in the 2020 cycle have until Jan. 10, 2020, to qualify for the race. The Republican and Democratic primaries will be held on March 10, 2020. The general election will be held on Nov. 3, 2020.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized McDaniel’s endorsement of Cindy Hyde-Smith in November 2018. McDaniel directly endorsed Hyde-Smith, asking his supporters to support the conservative in the race.