Chris McDaniel speaks to his supporters during a campaign stop on Lakeland Drive in Flowood Monday, November 5, 2018. Credit: Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

Longtime state Sen. Chris McDaniel on social media late Monday said he’ll announce his campaign plans Jan. 30 at events in Jackson and in Biloxi, leading most observers to believe he’s going to challenge incumbent Republican Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann.

Asked for comments or further info on his announcement Monday night, the Republican from Ellisville joked in a text, “I’m thinking (of running for) sheriff. :-)”

In a lengthy interview with Mississippi Today last week, the four-term incumbent senator said he was still undecided about challenging Hosemann, but sounded like a man gearing up for a campaign. He’s been traveling the state for months speaking to various political and civic groups and is co-head of a PAC that has been actively fundraising.

Usually on the outs with the Senate GOP leadership and back-benched for much of his tenure there, McDaniel has not seemed enthusiastic about his current seat for years as he looked to bigger offices.

“Yes, we’ve done polling,” McDaniel said. “My name ID is good. My favorability is good, and (Hosemann’s) unfavorability is higher than mine … Any politician in this state who is challenged from the right is vulnerable in this current environment.”

More than a decade ago, with the rise of the Tea Party, McDaniel became a leader of the far-right GOP and libertarians in Mississippi. In 2014, he made a seismic challenge of longtime Republican U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran. McDaniel, with financial support from out of state conservative groups and the state’s first true social media bombardment campaign, led the late Cochran in the first GOP primary vote, then narrowly lost in a runoff.

McDaniel’s run shook the Republican establishment in Mississippi, and has been credited by many as the catalyst for a large shift to the right in state Republican politics. McDaniel himself has said, “I was Donald Trump in Mississippi before Donald Trump.”

READ MORE: McDaniel blasts Hosemann as too liberal, weighs Lt. Gov. run

McDaniel ran for U.S. Senate again in 2018, but lost with only 16% of the vote in a nonpartisan, four-way race. Despite his declared loyalty to Trump, the then-president endorsed Cindy Hyde-Smith, who won the Senate seat.

Many in the GOP then wrote McDaniel off as a fringe candidate with only a small, albeit vocal and loyal, base. But McDaniel has mended fences at least with some in the state’s GOP, including his former political foe Gov. Tate Reeves. In 2019, McDaniel’s surprise endorsement of Reeves appeared to help Reeves garner more of the ultra conservative vote and helped him win a tough Republican primary.

McDaniel said his conservative base is strong and large, and more moderate Republicans are foolhardy to say otherwise.

“They tell themselves that so they can sleep better at night,” McDaniel said. “(His base) is going to exceed 40% on any given day in a Republican primary … Nobody thought Trump had a base, either.”

McDaniel, who serves in the Senate Hosemann oversees as lieutenant governor, has blasted Hosemann as too liberal and questioned his Republican bona fides. So far, Hosemann has not taken the bait and declined comment on McDaniel and his brickbats.

“This is the same Delbert Hosemann who endorsed Ray Mabus instead of Kirk Fordice (for governor). This is the same Delbert Hosemann who endorsed Mitt Romney instead of Donald Trump,” McDaniel said. “There’s consistency there throughout his career where he’s been not simply moderate, but more liberal than moderate … If people get wind of that, yes, he’s vulnerable. The cute commercials are one thing, and they are really clever. But the truth is out there, and it’s not the little lady on the bench, it’s his record.”

McDaniel’s improved relationship with Reeves has had many political observers speculating that Reeves, who has clashed often with Hosemann, is helping and urging McDaniel to run. Both McDaniel and the Reeves camp have denied this. A sitting Republican governor is de facto head of the MSGOP, and helping draft a challenge of a fellow incumbent Republican would be considered unsportsmanlike in political circles.

“(Reeves) has got his own races to run,” McDaniel said. “We haven’t discussed it, and we each have to, in some respects, stay in our own lanes. I consider him a friend, and I chalk our past differences up to misinterpretations on my part.”

McDaniel also refuted widespread rumors that he’s helping draft right-wing challengers of some of his fellow state senators.

“No, that’s not something I’m doing,” McDaniel said. “I can’t be playing checkers all over the state like that.”

But McDaniel said he does not feel as ostracized by the GOP machine as he did when he challenged the status quo with Cochran in 2014.

“I’ve gotten calls from all over — probably two dozen consultants offering to help,” McDaniel said. “These are options I’ve never had before. If anyone wants to help me, they can give me a call.”

McDaniel has in the past struggled to raise campaign money inside Mississippi, and he said he knows Hosemann will be well-funded and “incumbents, they try to clamp down fast on that, with threats, holding contracts over people’s heads.” But he said he’s confident he could raise enough money for a successful challenge.

Plus, McDaniel said social media has helped level the playing field on campaign finances, and he has a strong digital presence, including 305,000 followers on Facebook. In numerous comments on his announcement Monday, many followers said they support him. Many said they would attend his announcement if they lived in Mississippi. Some urged him to run for governor, or for U.S. Senate again.

One urged him, “Stream it live and break the internet!”

READ MORE: Chris McDaniel considered bid for Congress in 2021

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Geoff Pender serves as senior political reporter, working closely with Mississippi Today leadership on editorial strategy and investigations. Pender brings 30 years of political and government reporting experience to Mississippi Today. He was political and investigative editor at the Clarion Ledger, where he also penned a popular political column. He previously served as an investigative reporter and political editor at the Sun Herald, where he was a member of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team for Hurricane Katrina coverage. Originally from Florence, Mississippi, Pender is a journalism graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi and has received numerous awards throughout his career for reporting, columns and freedom of information efforts.