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Note: This analysis first published in Mississippi Today’s weekly legislative newsletter. Subscribe to our free newsletter for exclusive early access to weekly analyses.
Chris McDaniel walks into Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy’s office with his family on Jan. 3, 2023, places his left hand on a family Bible, raises his right hand, and is sworn into the 118th Congress of the United States.
This scenario, though premature to consider, is not nearly as improbable as it may seem.
McDaniel, the far-right flamethrower who gained national notoriety while twice trying to win a U.S. Senate seat in recent years, could finally make it to Washington if he wanted it.
And, according to people close to McDaniel, he is considering it with about one month before the March 1 qualifying deadline.
“My polling numbers are stronger than they’ve ever been, so I’m keeping all of my options open at this time,” McDaniel told Mississippi Today on Monday.
The race for Mississippi’s 4th Congressional District is wide open. There’s a 10-year incumbent in Congressman Steven Palazzo, but that incumbency may mean little considering he’s being investigated by the House Ethics Committee for allegedly misspending campaign funds.
As of this week, at least six other Republicans have announced their intentions of challenging Palazzo in the primary. This list includes some high-profile names like Jackson County Sheriff Mike Ezell, state Sen. Brice Wiggins and retired bank executive Clay Wagner.
The district itself is the most Republican in Mississippi, and it’s among the reddest in America. In 2020, former President Donald Trump won 68% of the vote in the 4th District. It features big population centers like the Gulf Coast, Hattiesburg, and up through the Free State of Jones — McDaniel’s home turf.
But it’s not just Jones County where McDaniel has always enjoyed his biggest support. He lays claim to the I-59 corridor, from his home county all the way down through Pearl River County.
Results from the two statewide campaigns McDaniel has run prove that he has a tight grasp on the 4th Congressional District.
In the 2018 special U.S. Senate election, he earned 54,000 votes in the 4th Congressional District alone. That special election featured four total candidates in a “jungle primary,” including incumbent U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, the hand-picked Republican of the establishment, and well-known Democrat Mike Espy.
That same year, the last midterm primary, Palazzo earned just 30,000 votes — about 20,000 votes shy of McDaniel.
The 2014 Republican primary provides a more apples-to-apples vote comparison. That year, McDaniel was running for the U.S. Senate against longtime incumbent Sen. Thad Cochran, and Palazzo was running for his third term in the U.S. House.
In the Republican primary for the House in August 2014, Palazzo won handily with 54,286 votes. In the Senate runoff for precincts in the 4th Congressional District that same year, McDaniel earned 67,000 votes in a close loss to Cochran — about 13,000 more than Palazzo.
Though running in different races in both 2014 and 2018, McDaniel earned more votes in the 4th Congressional District than the district’s incumbent congressman.
There are some obvious caveats. First, most obviously, McDaniel and Palazzo weren’t running against each other.
And the political landscapes of 2014, with the nation closely scrutinizing the Senate primary, and 2018, when a first-term Republican president was trying to retain a House majority, could be seen as lightyears away from the realities of today. But not much has changed, at least politically and electorally, in Mississippi’s 4th.
And with so many candidates in the crowded primary, it seems likely that there will be a runoff if no single candidate can garner 50% of the vote. How might McDaniel’s chances look given that dynamic?
All that said, the first question is the most simple: Will McDaniel run?
On Jan. 6, McDaniel posted to his Facebook page a photo of himself speaking in a church: “Huge crowd tonight. Patriots are awakening. Change is coming!”
On Jan. 27, he wrote a similar post: “Speaking to conservatives from around the state. People are awake; change is coming!”
While a devout Chicago Cubs fan, McDaniel’s very favorite pastime seems to be stirring the pot on Facebook and making people wonder whether he’s running for higher office.
He enjoys the relatively humble lifestyle of a state senator. And being a congressman can be… well, miserable. With two-year terms, you’re constantly running for office, the weekend red-eyes between Washington and Mississippi wear you down, and it seemingly takes eons to rise in the ranks of Congress.
If he does run, it will certainly make for an interesting few weeks in Mississippi.