Chris McDaniel Will Challenge Sen. Roger Wicker in Mississippi

Chris McDaniel promises a victory against Sen. Thad Cochran to a late night audience Tuesday at the Lake Terrace Convention Center in Hattiesburg, Miss.
AP Photo/George Clark

Mississippi State Senator Chris McDaniel, the populist-conservative who came within a hair’s breadth of clinching the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in 2014, announced Wednesday he would challenge his state’s other GOP incumbent this year.

“If you want a conservative to fight for you, you have your candidate. His name is Chris McDaniel,” the candidate told supporters at Jones County Junior College in his hometown of Ellisville, MS. “You want to drain the swamp, by George, let’s drain it now.”

Aligned Super PAC “Friends of Chris McDaniel” then released this video, announcing an explicitly anti-establishment campaign aimed at Republicans resisting President Donald Trump’s populist-nationalist agenda:

Initial polling puts incumbent Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS), who McDaniel is seeking to unseat, well ahead. Wicker has long had a reputation as a well-connected member of the GOP establishment, both in Mississippi and Washington. Nevertheless, he has largely made peace with the Trump revolution, for example attacking colleague Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) for his Never Trump posturing.

President Donald Trump himself, perhaps smarting from the lackluster performance of challengers to Republican incumbents in the South this election cycle, endorsed Wicker before McDaniel announced, thanking him for his efforts to get tax reform passed.

McDaniel was skeptical of Wicker’s Trumpist turn, telling supporters, “Thank God for Donald Trump. He’s turned Roger Wicker into a conservative for about the last three weeks.”

McDaniel’s 2018 campaign will be his second attempt to displace a sitting Republican U.S. Senator who he has been portrayed as less conservative and more GOP establishment oriented. In 2014, with the “Tea Party wave” still a potent force in Republican politics, McDaniel secured the endorsement of Gov. Sarah Palin (R-AK), Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA), Mark Levin, and a bevy of conservative groups in his insurgent campaign against incumbent Thad Cochran.

McDaniel won a bitterly contested first round of the 2014 GOP primary against Cochran, but a third candidate who got less than two percent of the vote prevented him from securing a majority by less than half of one percent and forced a run-off.

The tight result came after one of the most bizarre last-minute campaign twists in recent history. A McDaniel-supporting blogger broke into the Madison, MS nursing home where Thad Cochran’s invalid wife Rose resides and took pictures of her. The blogger, Clayton Thomas Kelly, briefly posted the image of Rose Cochran, incapacitated and suffering from dementia, in a video aimed at adding emotional punch to the long-running rumors of Cochran was being unfaithful to her.

The scandal generated a significant amount of sympathy for Cochran at exactly the correct time, leading to accusations the Cochran campaign held back reporting the break-in for maximum political effect. The McDaniel campaign was forced to contend with multiple arrests of supporters and battle insinuations of collusion in the break-in and illegal photography. No conclusive link to the McDaniel campaign was ever found.

McDaniel went on to lose the run-off by fewer than 8,000 votes, and polling data suggested thousands of Democrats crossed over in Mississippi’s open-primary system and supported Cochran.

For 2018, McDaniel’s new campaign website indicates the same unapologetically rightist angle of attack as his 2014 attempt, touting his tough stances and long track record on immigration, religious liberty, and pro-life issues, among others.

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