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.