The Return of Chris McDaniel

The tea-party firebrand takes on the “good ole’ boy” network

Mississippi state Sen. Chris McDaniel
AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis
Alex Rogers
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Alex Rogers
March 15, 2018, 8 p.m.

PASCAGOULA, Miss.—Eleven yellow cranes dot a broad blue sky as the shipyard comes into view. Across the highway from a maritime training academy named after former Gov. Haley Barbour, more than 5,800 men in hard hats, jeans, and boots jog towards their cars in the parking lot, kicking up gravel as they try to beat each other home after another long shift ends in the midafternoon.

Ingalls Shipbuilding, the manufacturing hub of Mississippi, is humming. Here, the defense industry has overtaken the others—seafood, gambling, and tourism—as billions of dollars flow south from Washington each year. The talk of Pascagoula, a town of some 22,000 people on the Gulf Coast, is that the shipyard may open up a facility on the East Bank that brings in a thousand new jobs. But there’s now a rising fear among some here: Would Chris McDaniel keep the money moving?

This November, McDaniel, an archconservative state senator, will run for the seat soon being vacated by Sen. Thad Cochran, who is regarded by many in Mississippi as a hero after 40 years of funneling federal money to his impoverished state. The campaign between McDaniel and the soon-to-be appointed pick of Gov. Phil Bryant will expose the old, grand debate within the Republican Party between its unyielding Right and its business class.

Those divisions in Mississippi are deep. Should he win, McDaniel would represent a sharp break from past senators’ way of working. McDaniel has pledged never to compromise with Democrats. He has called for ousting Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and the entrenched “good ole’ boy” network of politicians who he claims spend taxpayer money to enrich themselves. He has argued for protecting the state flag—the last in the nation containing the Confederate battle emblem—from calls to put it in a museum.

His campaign is also an act of retribution. McDaniel announced he would run against Sen. Roger Wicker, whom he considers “a big-spending Republican,” two weeks ago. But on Wednesday, he announced he would instead try again to win Cochran’s seat—one that he believes was “stolen” from him in 2014, when he narrowly lost a nasty race against the senator. His battle cry now is, “Remember Mississippi.”

“They think I’m looking for a seat,” McDaniel said in an interview in Jackson. “I’m looking for a fight.”

An exclusive club

In Mississippi, a senator has a good chance of becoming an icon. Only five have served the state since World War II, as it invested in young men to expand their influence on top committees over decades. The state has the lowest per-capita income of any in the country, and relies on the federal government for more than 42 percent of its revenue—second in the nation only to Louisiana, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts.

And so Mississippi honors those senators more prominently than its other notable sons. Jimmy Buffett and Trent Lott, the former Senate Republican leader, were born in Pascagoula five years apart. Buffett got a small beach and a short bridge named after him. Lott got an airport.

Sen. John Stennis served for over 40 years; he’s got a NASA Space Center, an aircraft carrier, and an institute at Mississippi State University with his name on it. When Sen. James Eastland retired after 36 years, he left days before his term expired to give the appointed Cochran a jump on his freshman colleagues. Now Cochran, the Appropriations chairman, who’s in charge of determining where some trillion-plus dollars go every year, is going to retire on April 1 with his name plastered on the campuses of colleges across the state. McDaniel said that, when he was a kid, Cochran was referred to like Elvis, having attained such status in the state that he’s known simply as “Thad.”

For decades, Mississippi senators have been measured by how much of the bacon they bring home. But McDaniel is running against the way the state’s government has become deeply interwoven with its business.

McDaniel says there’s a way to support Ingalls, noting that his grandfather once worked there, without burdening the next generation with mounting debt. “I support the shipbuilding, and I support the military build-up,” he said in an interview. “What I oppose is the fact that we hold our military hostage for the sake of these programs that are wasteful and inefficient and busting our budget.”

But it’s hard to imagine how he’d serve as an advocate for the defense industry without supporting the massive, trillion-dollar-plus budgets that both Democrats and Republicans vote for. When asked if he would have supported the recent blueprint that boosted military and nondefense spending by over $300 billion, McDaniel said he wouldn’t have, and instead would have joined Sen. Rand Paul to reenact caps on spending. “Rand Paul was right,” he said.

That kind of talk has many in Pascagoula worried.

“If a constituent asks me what is important to me, it’s who’s going to support federal investment—smart, sound federal investment in south Mississippi,” said Rep. Steven Palazzo. adding that “our quality of life” is dependent on the military and the jobs derived from defense spending. “Without that, south Mississippi would not be a great place to live,” Palazzo said.

Palazzo said people don’t realize yet how big a deal it is that Cochran is leaving. He wondered if the state wouldn’t be awarded the next ship class “because we don’t have a Thad Cochran.”

At Bozo’s Seafood Market and Deli, where you can get the best crawfish of your life for $2.90 a pound a short drive from the shipyard, Nicole Tillman, 36, says that her grandparents told her tales of when charter buses brought workers into Ingalls in the 1970s. Her husband works there still, and she favored Wicker over McDaniel in part because of what he could do for them there.

“Not to sound ‘good ole boy’—but I think he has ties and relationships in the right places that maybe McDaniel doesn’t,” Tillman said.

Keith Delcambre, the third-generation owner of Bozo’s, agreed. When asked if McDaniel would advocate on behalf of the yard, he said, “He may, but I just don’t want to take the chance.”

Hard feelings

McDaniel never conceded the 2014 race, after he saw Republicans recruit Democrats to help beat him in the runoff race by fewer than 7,000 votes. The race was notoriously ugly. McDaniel denied accusations of being a racist. A blogger went to jail for illegally taking a photo of Cochran’s wife in a nursing home; another man charged with conspiracy committed suicide a little over a month after his arrest. McDaniel alleged that laws were broken and votes were purchased; he took his voter-fraud case to court, but it was dismissed after a judge ruled he filed too late. McDaniel still simmers at the way the race ended.

“Before I challenged Thad Cochran, they were my friends, you see, or they said they were,” McDaniel said. “These were the ones that had me on every top 10 list in the state as an up-and-comer. These were the ones that were coming to my fundraisers. These were the ones that were in my corner—emails and texts: ‘You can do this.’ And then I challenged Thad. And then I became the most horrible human being in the world.

“I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “It was the ultimate insult. It was the ultimate betrayal.”

How he dealt with that loss has also spurred others to drop him.

Dane Maxwell, the mayor of Pascagoula and the son of a former mayor, worked on McDaniel’s behalf in 2014. Now, he’s turned against him.

“All of the craziness that happened there turned me off,” Maxwell said.

At Jerry Lee’s Grocery, the retired regulars talk shop for hours. “We’re professional coffee drinkers,” says one. There, Mike Mangum, 67, joked that the way McDaniel ended his race, “you’d think he was a Democrat.”

McDaniel was smart to switch his sights away from Wicker. Even he recognized that the incumbent was the early favorite in the race. Wicker had the backing of President Trump and several more million dollars in the bank. In a Wicker campaign poll obtained by National Journal, surveying 229 likely Republican voters in the McDaniel 2014 stronghold of Pearl River County, McDaniel was losing to Wicker, 45 to 28 percent.

“One of the criticisms back then was that the Republicans and the Congress weren’t standing up to President Obama like we should,” Wicker said in an interview. “That debate is ancient history now.

“The question now is: Who’s helping President Trump move his agenda forward?’” he said.

In a wide-ranging interview with National Journal a day before making his announcement that he was dropping out of the Senate race against Wicker, McDaniel acknowledged his vulnerabilities. When probed about the president’s endorsement, McDaniel retorted that the moderate Mitt Romney, who is running for Senate in Utah, has it too. But later, when asked if he had a message for the president, McDaniel quipped, “It’s not too late to change his endorsement.”

When asked about fundraising, McDaniel acknowledged that his camp was “doing our best to make our dollars stretch because we can’t outraise Mitch McConnell’s team,” adding that he had launched his campaign only a couple of weeks ago. (A super PAC supporting him has raised over a million dollars.)

When asked who was on his team, he could name only three people. And when asked if he was currently polling in the field, he laughed. “Polls—probably not,” he said. “Because they cost money.”

He asserted that Wicker would eventually have to debate him as the race tightened, even though the senator wouldn’t want to since “he wants to sit on that lead; he doesn’t want that contrast.” He shot back at the notion that some Trump-loving politicos in the state, particularly Maxwell, had turned on him. Maxwell, McDaniel said, “is begging for federal dollars,” noting that he had asked for more than a billion dollars in infrastructure aid following Hurricane Nate. “That changed everything,” he said.

It was clear that McDaniel was intrigued by the prospect of a special election, debating on stage with multiple candidates his brand of constitutional conservatism.

“We will be heard,” he said.

The road ahead

Wicker’s political weakness in the primary—his support for putting the state flag in a museum—may not have been enough to topple him, so McDaniel will likely be stronger in an open field against a nonincumbent. The governor’s short list of appointees is said to include Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, House Speaker Philip Gunn, and Agriculture and Commerce Commissioner Cindy Hyde-Smith. Bryant has been clear that he will not choose McDaniel, having recently criticized the state senator for being “opportunistic,” even as some McDaniel’s supporters have urged him to pick him. Last fall, Sen. Mike Lee of Utah asked the governor to appoint McDaniel as senator if and when Cochran decided to step down from office, according to someone familiar with the request.

Reeves is perhaps the strongest of those candidates, but it’s unclear if he wants the job. Hosemann’s age—70 years old—could be a knock against him. And Hyde-Smith served in the state Senate for 10 years as a Democrat before switching party affiliation in 2010. (“She is a very conservative individual,” said one Mississippi GOP official boosting her candidacy.) Gunn could be criticized from the right for calling for the removal of the state flag. Democrat Mike Espy, meanwhile, a former congressman and Agriculture secretary for President Clinton, has already announced he’ll run.

Despite all of the federal aid Cochran has helped secure for Pascagoula, McDaniel has done well here and retains support. It’s the seat of a county—Jackson—that went for McDaniel in the 2014 Republican primary by 328 votes and narrowly flipped Cochran’s way in the runoff. Those still looking for a change here back him.

At the shipyard, James Brucker, a 49-year-old joiner, said he’d vote for McDaniel. “It’s a change, plus the good ole’ boys got to go,” he said.

“I’m tired of the ‘you do this for me, I’ll do that for you,’” Brucker said.

He added that McDaniel’s state-flag position was important to him. “You start changing people’s heritage, then you might as well change everything to do with everyone,” he said.

Over sweet tea at the Heritage House, the retired Larry Hammonds, 71, says he’ll support McDaniel again too, claiming that McConnell is “totally useless,” House Speaker Paul Ryan is “not much better,” and Wicker has “done nothing.”

“I think Chris McDaniel is going to win,” he added. “We won the last time!”

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