A Budding Primary Challenge in MS-4

MARCH 2, 2015 — It’s rare that we cover state legislative candidates in these columns, but a new Mississippi political development may serve as a precursor to a major 2016 congressional challenge.

Chris McDaniel is the state senator who came so very close to denying Sen. Thad Cochran (R) re-nomination last year. Yesterday, McDaniel announced that he is seeking re-election to the legislature in Mississippi’s odd-numbered off-year state elections.

Since the Magnolia State does not host a US Senate race in 2016, McDaniel was asked in an interview if he is planning to challenge 4th District three-term Rep. Steven Palazzo in next year’s Republican primary. While not flatly answering “yes”, McDaniel admitted that he would “prefer a federal position.”

A Palazzo-McDaniel contest would certainly be significant. Palazzo, himself a state legislator in 2010, unseated Rep. Gene Taylor (D) who first won the Gulf Coast congressional district seat in a 1989 special election when incumbent Larkin Smith (R-MS-5) was killed in a plane crash. Though a Democrat, Taylor had consistently voted a conservative line during his long congressional career.

Palazzo was re-nominated in 2012 with 74 percent of the vote against two GOP opponents. He easily won the general election for a second term scoring 64% against the Democratic nominee.

Problems came for him in the 2014 Republican primary, however. With Taylor switching parties in order to wage a battle in the GOP primary, the former Congressman evolved into a serious Republican candidate, coming very close to forcing the current incumbent into a run-off. Palazzo claimed re-nomination with just 50.5% preference, avoiding what could have been a disastrous secondary election by just half a percentage point.

McDaniel actually topped Sen. Cochran in the 2014 Republican primary by just under a percentage point, 49.8-49.0 percent, but fell to him 49-51 percent in the run-off. In the 4th District portion of the state, however, McDaniel scored 58 percent against Sen. Cochran’s 42 percent even while losing the statewide count. This strong district showing compared with a weak 2014 Palazzo performance certainly suggests that a race featuring these two men next year will be highly competitive.

Much will happen between now and then. McDaniel first needs to win re-election, and we can surmise the Palazzo forces will be present in that campaign to pin the Jones County state senator down on issues, and underscore that he will immediately run for another position once the legislative seat is safely secured. It also remains to be seen how McDaniel’s antics of repeatedly attempting to thwart the run-off election results with a series of legal and political challenges will hurt him as he moves forward with his 2015 political effort, and a potential challenge to Palazzo.

Though it is likely we will see fewer primary challenge campaigns in 2016, the budding contest in Mississippi’s Gulf Coast region has legitimate upset potential and will certainly capture its share of national attention – assuming no surprises occur when the 2015 votes are counted.

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