Mississippi Republicans Prepping for Another Senate Primary

The same challenger could be back from the ugly 2014 race that went to a runoff.

Mississippi state Sen. Chris McDaniel
AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis
Kimberly Railey
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Kimberly Railey
March 15, 2017, 8 p.m.

In a Sen­ate cycle that will be played al­most en­tirely on Demo­crat­ic turf, Mis­sis­sippi could host an in­tern­al Re­pub­lic­an war.

State Sen. Chris McDaniel is ser­i­ously con­sid­er­ing a Re­pub­lic­an primary chal­lenge to Sen. Ro­ger Wick­er in 2018, four years after nearly un­seat­ing Sen. Thad Co­chran. Even at this early point, a McDaniel bid threatens to re­ignite the GOP rift that nom­in­a­tion fight laid bare, when es­tab­lish­ment and tea-party groups fueled one of the most hard-edged midterm battles.

Sev­er­al Mis­sis­sippi Re­pub­lic­ans con­ten­ded that Wick­er would enter a race against McDaniel as the fa­vor­ite, thanks to a cam­paign already mov­ing far more quickly than Co­chran’s 2014 ef­fort. But they warned that McDaniel, armed with a base of hard-core sup­port­ers, is still a strong threat.

“It would be a ser­i­ous chal­lenge,” said one Mis­sis­sippi Re­pub­lic­an, gran­ted an­onym­ity to speak can­didly. “The guy al­most beat Thad Co­chran, who’s a be­loved states­man.”

In an in­ter­view with Na­tion­al Journ­al, McDaniel em­phas­ized that “all op­tions are on the table” for his polit­ic­al fu­ture. A de­cision on a Sen­ate bid, he said, would come by the end of the year, but he doesn’t see him­self at a dis­ad­vant­age this time giv­en his per­form­ance against Co­chran.

“I don’t think I’m the un­der­dog,” McDaniel said. “Co­chran was next in line to be Ap­pro­pri­ations Chair­man, and Co­chran was in­cred­ibly pop­u­lar in Mis­sis­sippi.”

Com­pared with Wick­er, McDaniel ad­ded, “Co­chran was a much more for­mid­able op­pon­ent.”

But Co­chran got a crip­plingly late start, wait­ing un­til Decem­ber 2013 to de­cide to run again, months after McDaniel had de­clared. Wick­er has already hired a vet­er­an cam­paign man­ager in Justin Brasell, a Mis­sis­sippi nat­ive whose résumé in­cludes races for Sens. Mitch Mc­Con­nell of Ken­tucky and Tom Cot­ton of Arkan­sas.

Wick­er is also build­ing a grass­roots cam­paign in all of the state’s 82 counties, Brasell said. At the start of the year, he had $1.6 mil­lion in his cam­paign ac­count.

“Our plan is to pre­pare for a com­pet­it­ive race no mat­ter what,” Brasell said.

One ques­tion is wheth­er McDaniel’s bid will draw out­side sup­port from con­ser­vat­ive or­gan­iz­a­tions like the Club for Growth, whose su­per PAC shelled out more than $3 mil­lion to boost him in 2014. Spokes­man Doug Sach­tleben said the group is “watch­ing the race.”

McDaniel, who said he has had no of­fi­cial meet­ing with the Club, as­ser­ted that his team is in “con­stant con­tact” with con­ser­vat­ive groups around the coun­try.

Wick­er, mean­while, is poised to have the full weight of party lead­ers be­hind him, after chair­ing the Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Sen­at­ori­al Com­mit­tee in 2016 and keep­ing the Sen­ate un­der GOP con­trol. That suc­cess, Re­pub­lic­ans said, en­deared him to a wide net­work of donors, as well as con­ser­vat­ive sen­at­ors who could prove help­ful sur­rog­ates against McDaniel.

In a state­ment, NR­SC ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or Chris Hansen said the com­mit­tee “is proud to fully sup­port” Wick­er in the primary and gen­er­al elec­tion.

“In 2016, Sen­at­or Ro­ger Wick­er saved the Re­pub­lic­an Sen­ate ma­jor­ity,” Hansen said. “Without his tire­less work, lib­er­al New York Sen­at­or Chuck Schu­mer would be in charge of the United States Sen­ate today.”

McDaniel, in de­clar­ing his ra­tionale for a bid, ac­cused Wick­er of not push­ing a con­ser­vat­ive enough ver­sion of health care re­form. But Wick­er al­lies said that strategy is flawed, point­ing out Pres­id­ent Trump’s back­ing of the cur­rent Re­pub­lic­an plan and Trump’s pop­ular­ity among the GOP base.

Trump en­dorsed McDaniel in 2014, tweet­ing that the state sen­at­or “wants things to change in Wash­ing­ton.”

For its part, the Wick­er team main­tains this would be an en­tirely dif­fer­ent race. Brasell said the sen­at­or is a close and trus­ted ally of the pres­id­ent.

“Sen­at­or Wick­er would ex­pect to have the strong sup­port of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion,” Brasell said.

The polit­ic­al en­vir­on­ment was also far dif­fer­ent in 2014, when tea-party groups were look­ing for in­cum­bents to primary. Former House Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Eric Can­tor was de­feated that year, a week after the Mis­sis­sippi primary. No in­cum­bent Re­pub­lic­an sen­at­or has lost a primary since 2012.

Wick­er al­lies also ar­gued that the nasty end to McDaniel’s 2014 race could have soured his stand­ing among some Mis­sis­sippi Re­pub­lic­ans. After push­ing Co­chran in­to a run­off, McDaniel re­fused to con­cede and later filed a form­al chal­lenge to the elec­tion res­ults, al­leging voter fraud and oth­er ir­reg­u­lar­it­ies.

“When you go to battle, you’re go­ing to have some wounds,” said Noel Fritsch, McDaniel’s 2014 com­mu­nic­a­tions dir­ect­or. “Wick­er hasn’t been tested yet. That’s what this is go­ing to be all about.”

Even McDaniel crit­ics con­ceded that the state sen­at­or re­mains pop­u­lar among some con­ser­vat­ives in the state. After some Re­pub­lic­ans pre­dicted that chal­len­ging Co­chran would be a ca­reer-end­ing move, McDaniel was most re­cently reelec­ted to his seat with 86 per­cent of the vote.

As he weighs a Sen­ate bid, McDaniel has also been floated for oth­er statewide po­s­i­tions, in­clud­ing gov­ernor and lieu­ten­ant gov­ernor. To run for Sen­ate, he would not have to give up his cur­rent post.

In the mean­time, Mis­sis­sippi Re­pub­lic­ans said Wick­er, who was in­stru­ment­al to help­ing Co­chran win the 2014 run­off, is not tak­ing any­thing for gran­ted.

“The biggest dif­fer­ence is that the Wick­er cam­paign will be pre­pared and the Co­chran cam­paign wasn’t,” said Bri­an Perry, who ran a pro-Co­chran su­per PAC in 2014.

“Wick­er is tak­ing it ser­i­ously,” he ad­ded.

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