Wicker Dodges McDaniel in Mississippi

By Jim Ellis

Mississippi state Sen. Chris McDaniel (R-Ellisville)

Mississippi state Sen. Chris McDaniel (R-Ellisville)

March 16, 2018 — Just before the Mississippi candidate deadline approached on March 1, state Sen. Chris McDaniel (R-Ellisville), who came within 1,719 votes of denying Sen. Thad Cochran (R) re-nomination in the 2014 Republican primary, filed to challenge Sen. Roger Wicker (R) in this year’s June primary.

The move appeared dubious since McDaniel was just beginning a campaign in early March and Sen. Wicker, whose campaign committee has well over $4 million in the bank, was well prepared for a serious challenge coming from his Tea Party opponent.

Once again, it appears Sen. Cochran has factored into McDaniel’s political future. With the senator announcing that he will end his 40-year senatorial career next month — the tenth longest Senate tenure in American history — the southeastern Mississippi conservative state legislator announced Wednesday that he will already abandon his challenge against Wicker, and instead enter the special election to replace Sen. Cochran.

Under Mississippi succession law, Gov. Phil Bryant (R) will appoint an interim replacement after Cochran officially leaves office. The interim senator will be eligible to stand for election when the people have a chance to vote in the special election to be held concurrently with the regular election calendar.

Unlike in many states, there will be no nomination cycle for the Mississippi special election. All candidates, presumably including the interim senator, will be placed on the general election ballot. Should no one receive an absolute majority, the top two finishers will advance to a secondary run-off election three weeks after the regular general election. This date, according to the 2018 calendar, would be Nov. 27, or two days before Thanksgiving.

National Republican leaders definitely want Gov. Bryant to appoint a new senator with strong campaign abilities who will run for the seat, remembering the painful Alabama special election debacle that occurred last year. Apparently retiring Rep. Gregg Harper (R-Pearl/Jackson) was offered the appointment, but turned down the opportunity saying that he is intent on leaving Congress. Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves (R) has been viewed as having the inside track to replace Cochran, but he too is said to be opting to remain in his current position so that he might have a clear shot at the 2019 open gubernatorial campaign since Gov. Bryant is ineligible to seek a third term.

Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann (R) was also rumored to be on Gov. Bryant’s short list for the appointment. Over the weekend, Hosemann also seemed to take himself out of the running by publicly saying he will be running for the open lieutenant governor’s position next year. Such a move provides a further clue that Reeves will be running for governor and not senator. If Hosemann believed Reeves would be running for Senate, he would almost assuredly be heading into what would be an open governor’s campaign. Since he is reportedly opting for lieutenant governor, it tells us that Reeves has removed himself from the Senate appointment universe.

Speculation now centers upon Agriculture & Commerce Commissioner Cindy Hyde-Smith (R), who enjoys the reputation of being a strong campaigner. Additionally, Gov. Bryant can make history by appointing her since Mississippi is the only state that has never elected a female to fill one of its congressional positions.

Knowing that McDaniel will be in the special election race could alter Gov. Bryant’s thinking as to who may be the person that best matches up against him, since it is clear that the Washington establishment does not want to see an uncompromising hardliner like McDaniel representing the state. Whether or not Hyde-Smith is viewed to be the strongest competition for McDaniel remains to be seen. But, with this new twist to the appointment process, all eyes will be on the Magnolia State immediately upon Sen. Cochran beginning his retirement.

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