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Analysis: Mississippi could have tough 2018 Senate race

EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS

Mississippi’s most recent Republican primary for U.S. Senate was hard-fought and ugly, and it might be a preview of things to come in 2018.

State Sen. Chris McDaniel came close to unseating longtime U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran in 2014 by portraying the Appropriations Committee chairman as a big-spending Washington insider who belonged to an out-of-touch political elite.

Voters ultimately chose to keep Cochran, and his influence, for a seventh six-year term.

McDaniel and some of his tea party supporters criticized the Cochran campaign for openly courting black voters in traditional Democratic counties for their support in the Republican primary runoff. The tactic is legal because Mississippi voters don’t register by party and the only people restricted from voting in one party’s runoff are those who voted in the other party’s original primary. Still, the McDaniel camp has used “Remember Mississippi” as a rallying cry for what they perceive as injustice and what Cochran supporters say was simply smart strategy.

After Donald Trump prevailed over U.S. senators and former governors in the 2016 Republican presidential primary and ultimately won the White House, McDaniel supporters see renewed momentum for an outsider candidate.

McDaniel is positioning himself to challenge Mississippi’s other Republican U.S. senator, Roger Wicker, in 2018. Though he says he has not made a final decision, McDaniel is dropping hints, just as he did right up until his announcement in late 2013 that he would take on Cochran in ’14.

After former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore won the Republican U.S. Senate primary in Alabama last week by appealing to social conservatives, McDaniel told The Associated Press that he saw the Alabama results as “a continuation of what we did in 2013 and ’14.” McDaniel stopped short of saying he would challenge Wicker, but said Moore’s win “makes ours a much more compelling race.”

McDaniel also has the support of former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, who backed Moore in Alabama.

Wicker served in the Mississippi state Senate before winning a U.S. House seat in 1994. Gov. Haley Barbour appointed Wicker to the U.S. Senate in December 2007 after fellow Republican Trent Lott resigned. Wicker defeated Democratic former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove in November 2008 to fill the final years of the term Lott started.

Wicker easily won a six-year term in 2012 and has focused on building up the Navy fleet, which helps one of Mississippi’s largest private employers, Ingalls Shipbuilding.

McDaniel argues that Wicker “has the same voting record as Sen. Cochran,” but without decades of good will built up across the Mississippi electorate. McDaniel said that means that he could gather the same anti-establishment support he won in 2014 without Wicker being able to turn to independents and Democrats.

“When we started that race, Thad Cochran was the most popular politician in Mississippi,” McDaniel said. “In Mississippi, we have some folks known by one name. We have Elvis. We have Thad. But we looked at it and saw from the start the beginnings of the philosophical divide that we have in our party. It just has to be exposed properly.”

Wicker led the National Republican Senatorial Committee in 2016, and gained favor in the GOP by raising money and campaigning for candidates in several states.

Winning a Senate race is expensive, and much of the money traditionally comes from national groups. Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee announced last week that he won’t seek re-election in 2018, and that could affect how much cash is available for the Senate race in Mississippi, both for Wicker and for anyone trying to knock him out of office.

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Associated Press writer Bill Barrow contributed to this report.

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» Emily Wagster Pettus has covered Mississippi government and politics since 1994. Follow her on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus .

About Ross Reily

Ross Reily is editor of the Mississippi Business Journal. He is a husband to an amazing wife, dad to 3 crazy kids and 2 dogs. He is also a fan of the Delta State Fighting Okra and the Boston Red Sox.

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