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McDaniel, a state senator, came close to defeating Mississippi’s other U.S. senator, Thad Cochran, in 2014
♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor
ELLISVILLE, Mississippi (CFP) — Just four years after coming from out of nowhere to nearly topple Mississippi’s venerable U.S. Senator Thad Cochran, State Senator Chris McDaniel is taking aim again, but this time at Cochran’s Senate seatmate, Roger Wicker.
Calling the Republican Party “untethered,” McDaniel announced his primary run against Wicker before a hometown crowd in Ellisville February 28, triggering what is likely to be a contentious struggle between the GOP’s establishment and Tea Party wings.
“It’s time to reassert who we are. Foundational principles matter,” said McDaniel, who went on to take a shot at politicians who, he said, change once they get to Washington and find themselves surrounded by “all that marble, all that money, and all those lobbyists.”
“Why do you keep sending the same old men to represent you?” McDaniel said, a dig at Wicker, 66, and Cochran, 80, who together have spent almost 70 years in Congress. “They are more concerned about (Senate Majority Leader) Mitch McConnell than they are you.”
“They betray you. They betray you to empower themselves. They forget about the regular people in Mississippi,” he said. “I’m tired of electing people from Mississippi who go to Washington to score points for the other team.”
However, McDaniel will be making his challenge against Wicker without the backing of President Donald Trump, who has tweeted his support for the incumbent:
“@SenatorWicker of Mississippi has been a great supporter and incredible help in getting our massive Tax Cut Bill done and approved. Also big help on cutting regs. I am with him in his re-election all the way!”
But if Trump is not embracing McDaniel, McDaniel made it clear that he would be embracing Trump.
“Donald Trump told us he wanted to drain the swamp. And I’m going to go there and help him drain the swamp,” he said.
After McDaniel’s announcement, Wicker released a statement saying he was “looking forward to this campaign and sharing my record of successfully fighting to reduce job-killing regulations, confirm conservative judges, enact historic tax cuts, rebuild our military, and honor our veterans.”
“We will work hard to once again earn the votes and support of all Mississippians.”
McDaniel, 45, has served in the Mississippi Senate since 2008. In 2014, he challenged Cochran, who began serving in Congress when McDaniel was in diapers, and narrowly beat him in the first round of voting to force a runoff. However, the Republican establishment roared back in favor of the veteran senator, who took the runoff by 7,700 votes.
McDaniel unsuccessfully challenged the result, alleging that the Cochran campaign had induced Democrats to vote illegally in the Republican primary. Under state law, Democratic voters were free to vote in the runoff if they had not voted during the first round in the Democratic primary, a tactic Cochran’s campaign openly encouraged.
The contentious 2014 campaign left bruised feelings in the Magnolia State, particularly after 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 prison, and Rose Cochran died in December 2014. Senator Cochran married Kay Webber, a longtime staffer in his Washington office, in 2015.
In recent months, Cochran has been in ill health, leading to speculation that his seat might open up for McDaniel to try to fill. However, with the filing deadline for Wicker’s seat coming up March 1, McDaniel opted for a primary challenge instead.
McDaniel will be able to rely on support from Tea Party and conservative groups critical of the Senate Republican leadership, who backed him in his campaign against Cochran. He has also reportedly been meeting with Trump’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, as part of Bannon’s efforts to recruit challengers to run against incumbent Republican senators.
Wicker was elected to the Senate in 2006 after serving six terms in the U.S. House and won re-election easily in 2012. The winner of the GOP primary would be a prohibitive favorite in Mississippi, which hasn’t elected a Democrat to the U.S. Senate since 1982.
Democratic hopes for an Alabama-style upset in neighboring Mississippi were dashed in January when Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley, a distant relative of Elvis Presley, decided not to run. The only Democrat to file for the seat is political newcomer Jensen Bohren, a Bernie Sanders supporter.