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Chris McDaniel switches to open U.S. Senate race in Mississippi

Decision sets off feud with Governor Phil Bryant, who tells McDaniel that Senate “is not the business for you”

♦By Rich Shumate, editor

JACKSON, Mississippi (CFP) — Republican State Senator Chris McDaniel has decided to end his primary challenge to U.S. Senator Roger Wicker and instead run for a vacancy created by the resignation of Mississippi’s other senator, Thad Cochran.

State Senator Chris McDaniel

But McDaniel’s switch, and a lobbying campaign by his supporters to persuade Governor Phil Bryant to pick McDaniel as Cochran’s temporary replacement until the November election, has led to a war of words between McDaniel and the governor, who has made it clear he will do whatever it takes to keep McDaniel out of the Senate.

“This opportunistic behavior is a sad commentary for a young man who once had great potential,” Bryant said in a March 15 statement released after McDaniel announced he was changing races.

In a statement announcing the switch, McDaniel said he want Republicans “to unite around my candidacy and avoid another contentious contest among GOP members that would only improve the Democrats’ chances of winning the open seat.”

“If we unite the party now and consolidate our resources, we can guarantee Donald Trump will have a fighter who will stand with him,” he said.

Members of the Mississippi Tea Party came to the Capitol in Jackson on March 14 to lobby Bryant to appoint McDaniel to the seat, which would clear the way for him to win the post permanently in November.

However, the governor made it clear that won’t happen, sending a blunt message to McDaniel in an interview with the Jackson Clarion-Ledger: “This is not the business for you.”

Bryant’s reaction to McDaniel’s candidacy shows that hard feelings have lingered from a bruising 2014 Senate primary in which McDaniel nearly ousted Cochran, a fixture in state politics for more than four decades.

During that campaign, a McDaniel supporter, Clayton Kelly, sneaked into a nursing home to photograph Cochran’s wife, who was suffering from dementia, in order to collect material for a political video alleging that Cochran was involved in an extramarital affair. McDaniel denied any involvement in the scheme; Kelly later went to jail.

McDaniel has been a harsh critic of the Republican establishment, including Cochran, Wicker, and, especially, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, whom he accused of meddling in the Mississippi Senate races.

“Mitch McConnell wants to hand-pick our next senator. I understand why. It’s because they know that I won’t be answering to them, I’ll be answering to the voters of Mississippi and putting Mississippi first,” he said in a statement.

But Bryant told the Clarion-Ledger that Cochran’s charge that McConnell was trying to dictate the Senate appointment was “the silliest thing I’ve ever heard.”

Bryant will appoint a temporary replacement for Cochran who will serve until a new senator is elected in a special election in November to fill the final two years of Cochran’s term. The governor is expected to pick someone who will contest the seat.

In the special election, candidates from all parties will run in the same race, with the top two finishers competing in a runoff in no one wins a majority in the first round.

Former Secretary Mike Espy

Complicating matters for the Republicans is the candidacy of former U.S. Rep. Mike Espy, a Democrat who served as secretary of agriculture in the Clinton administration.

If the Republican field is divided between McDaniel and Bryant’s pick for the vacancy, Espy — who became the first African American to represent Mississippi in Congress since Reconstruction when he was elected in 1986 — could top the first round of voting.

African Americans make up 37 percent of the state’s voting age population. No Democrat has won a Senate seat in Mississippi since 1982.

Cochran, 80, resigned because of ill health. He has served in Congress since 1972.

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