Politics & Government

Chris McDaniel was a rising GOP star. Now he’s fighting for political survival.

Senate candidate Chris McDaniel accused republicans of race-baiting in 2014

When State Sen. Chris McDaniel was challenging U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran in the 2014 campaign, Cochran's campaign was trying to lure black voters by linking McDaniel to racist policies and organizations. McDaniel accused Cochran of race baiting.
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When State Sen. Chris McDaniel was challenging U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran in the 2014 campaign, Cochran's campaign was trying to lure black voters by linking McDaniel to racist policies and organizations. McDaniel accused Cochran of race baiting.

Down in the polls, short on cash, and running out of time, Republican conservative firebrand Chris McDaniel says he’s far from cooked in his bid to win a U.S. Senate seat from Mississippi that he believes was stolen from him four years ago.

But polls say otherwise.

“When I first ran four years ago, what did the establishment say? ‘Not a chance, he may get 15 percent of the vote, his political career is over.’ Didn’t happen,” McDaniel said. “We were one of the first ‘Drain the Swamp’ candidates. We’re going to be fine.”

McDaniel’s 2018 campaign has seen a dramatic reversal of fortune from the 2014 Senate run that made him a tea party darling, garnered national attention, branded him as a conservative star on the rise, and shook the Republican Party establishment to its core.

“For some reason, though, the fire hasn’t started burning very brightly for Chris’ campaign this time,” said Marty Wiseman, former director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University. “It’s kind of left him sitting dead in the water.”

Polls indicate that McDaniel is running a distant third in the Nov. 6 special election to replace Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Mississippi, who retired in April citing health reasons.

If he, Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith or Democrat Mike Espy, a former U.S. House member and Clinton administration agriculture secretary, fail to win more than 50 percent of the vote in the so-called “jungle” election, the top two finishers will face each other in a Nov. 27 runoff.

McDaniel says part of his campaign’s struggles are rooted in Republican Party success. Barack Obama is out of the White House and Donald Trump is in. The GOP controls the Senate and the House of Representatives, regulations are being rolled back, and conservative judges are being nominated and confirmed.

“You still have the (voter) anger, but there is also a degree of satisfaction among some percentage of the base,” McDaniel said in an interview in his Laurel, Miss., law office. “They feel like things are in order, the structure is good against, that things are improving.”

McDaniel was the top vote-getter in a 2014 primary but narrowly lost in a bitter runoff by to longtime incumbent Cochran. The senator’s return to Washington was boosted by overtures to Democratic-leaning African-American voters — a political theft in McDaniel’s mind.

He refused to concede and defiantly filed a lawsuit alleging rampant voter fraud. He complained that Cochran wooed Democrats who didn’t intend to vote for him in the general election.

A Mississippi state judge dismissed the lawsuit. But the GOP establishment, already wary of McDaniel, grew even more distant.

“Chris McDaniel left a pretty bitter taste in Republicans’ mouths at the conclusion by filing the court challenge dragging the GOP through the mud,” former state Sen. Merle Flowers told the Associated Press in February.

Still, McDaniel believes there’s enough lingering voter resentment over the 2014 runoff and anger toward GOP elites – read Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. - to take him to victory.

“A lot of individuals still feel like that race was stolen from them in 2014,” he said. “There’s a lot of conversation about that and how it wasn’t fair and how that was the system working against the people just as the system has always worked against the people.”

McDaniel was hoping for a much-needed endorsement from Trump — who tweeted in 2014 that McDaniel “is strong, he is smart & he wants to change things in Washington” — to boost his campaign.

But instead of supporting a political kindred spirit in McDaniel, Trump opted to back Hyde-Smith, a former Democrat who was appointed by Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant to temporarily fill Cochran’s seat.

The people of Mississippi understand that President Trump occasionally has to cut deals by Mitch McConnell,” McDaniel said of the endorsement. “How else can you explain that he endorsed Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan and John McCain? These are individuals who are hostile toward a President Trump, yet President Trump endorsed them.”

Still, McDaniel is reeling. The millions in campaign contributions that poured into McDaniel coffers from tea party and conservative political action committees in 2014 have slowed to a trickle, if they come at all.

And the celebrity-filled Tea Party Express campaign tour bus that roared through Mississippi on McDaniel’s behalf in 2014 won’t be there in 2018, according to Sal Russo, a co-founder and strategist for the group.

“Tea Party Express has always been a believer of (conservative commentator and author) Bill Buckley’s rule to support the most electable conservative,” Russo said. “We’re not afraid of taking a chance, but we have to see a path to victory.”

McDaniel says that path is being blocked by a Mississippi and national Republican establishment that’s trying to suffocate his campaign. He’s not wrong.

Hyde-Smith, who is vying to become the first woman elected to Congress from Mississippi, is being aided by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a McConnell ally.

She’s also getting help from the Mississippi Victory Fund, an anti-McDaniel political action committee that was established earlier this year. Flowers serves as its treasurer.

The fund had $334,800 as of June 30 and one of its top donors, former Mississippi Republican governor and national Republican Party Chairman Haley Barbour, kicked in $25,000.

McDaniel, who amassed an over $3.3 million campaign fund in 2014, has raised $327,263 thus far in 2018 and had $156,054 in cash on hand at the end of June.

A pro-McDaniel Super PAC, Remember Mississippi, funded largely by deep-pocketed donors such as businessmen Richard Uihlien and Robert Mercer — has raised nearly $1.3 million.

However, an investigation by the Associated Press reported last month that about $792,000 of that money has already been spent on operating expenses and at least 18 campaign consultants.

Hyde-Smith’s campaign has raised more than $1.6 million and had nearly $1.4 million in cash on hand at the end of June. Espy has raised $408,236 and had $281,476 in cash on hand.

But McDaniel says the financial and endorsement setbacks won’t deter him. The 2014 donors will come back, he says, and there’s still plenty enough angry voters out there to prove pundits and the GOP establishment wrong on Nov.6 – or Nov. 27.

“The more they hear about (Hyde-Smith’s) record as Democrat, the more they hear about her donors and how the lobbying faces in Washington are funding her campaign, we pick up steam every day,” McDaniel said

“It’s just a matter of getting that message to the people,” he added.

The Mississippi Coast got a preview in October 2017 of how state Sen. Chris McDaniel's 2018 campaign for Senate would be fought. He spoke at McElroy's in Ocean Springs.

William Douglas: 202-383-6026, @williamgdouglas