Next year’s U.S. Senate election in Mississippi may double as a referendum on the state flag. Incumbent Sen. Roger Wicker and looming challenger state Sen. Chris McDaniel have taken opposite positions and both know the flag is red meat.
It may arouse a go-to-the-polls passion among the public which, despite constant pandering by cable news, is overwhelmingly apathetic when it comes to actual voting.
After the violence in Charlottesville, Va., last week, Wicker calmly said it was clearly in Mississippi’s best interest to remove the Confederate battle flag from the official state banner.
“It would be more unifying if we put this Mississippi flag in a museum and replaced it with something that was more unifying,” said Wicker, a Republican from Pontotoc who moved from the U.S. House to the Senate in December 2007 after the resignation of former Sen. Trent Lott.
His only equivocation was that it was a shame the KKK and other groups had co-opted the Stars and Bars.
His likely rival, McDaniel, a Republican from Ellisville, went on the attack to exaggerate and mischaracterize what Wicker said. “Roger Wicker is using the tragedy in Charlottesville to AGAIN (his emphasis) stand with liberals and call for the removal of our state flag,” McDaniel wrote, tossing in “Unbelievable” at the end. Wicker’s observation was tepid, yet McDaniel depicted him as toting water for the banshees of the left.
This characterization, of course, illustrates the gaping gulf among Mississippians who identify both as conservative and Republican. McDaniel is long-associated with crusades to preserve “our Southern ways.” Wicker is a board room conservative, not given to being shrill or making appeals to emotion.
For many months, emails have been sent out from “Senator McDaniel” asking for donations to support an unspecified election bid. He never says he intends to run against Wicker. In fact, he affirmatively says he hasn’t decided on a run for national office. But really. How many state senators send campaign solicitations statewide or perhaps even wider?
Another indicator of intent is that the emails don’t mention state issues. They just position him as a serious opponent of all liberals, identifying most his fellow Republicans by that label.
McDaniel has already influenced Wicker. Any observer will tell you the incumbent has moved cautiously to the right, offering mild but reliable support to President Donald Trump on a variety of matters, including the repeal of Obamacare.
For decades, indeed for most of the last 100 years, Mississippi has sent real, sure-enough gentlemen to the represent the state. John Stennis and James Eastland were the state’s senators for a combined 77 years. Both were courtly and soft-spoken (usually) in keeping with the tenor of the assembly. Thad Cochran, when he went to the Senate in 1978, was the first Republican senator from Mississippi for more than a century. For his entire career, Cochran has been a friend to all. He has avoided histrionics, bloviating and, above all, making personal enemies of those with whom he has ideological difference. Lott was a bit edgier, but had many true and loyal friends across the aisle.
The ship of civility has sailed.
McDaniel got a taste of what works in today’s voter climate when he forced Cochran into a runoff in the 2015 Republican primary then lost, narrowly, in the runoff.
His messages typify those common to button-pushers. The national debt is horrific. But he’s short on explaining how a balance would be achieved. “Unelected federal judges rewriting laws for our entire republic,” was a complaint in an email from chris@mcdanielformississippi. It was an oblique reference to gay marriage. But again, it begs the question of what, exactly, the U.S. Senate could do once the Supreme Court finds a provision unconstitutional. Answer: Nothing.
The email says “establishment Republicans are doing everything they can to sabotage Donald Trump.”
Responding to Charlottesville and a request from the Mississippi Legislative Black Caucus for a special session to replace the flag, The (Jackson) Clarion-Ledger polled a bevy of state and federal officials on their stance. Most kicked the can down the road, talking about process and such. Pro-business Gov. Phil Bryant continued opposing business interests that have, like Wicker, long seen that the current flag is an economic albatross.
Differences of opinion have peaked and ebbed since the Legislature (not the voters) adopted the current design in 1894. Confrontations like those in Charlottesville will continue to bring the matter to the fore. If it is hoisted to the front and center in the 2018 Senate election, either logic or emotion will carry the day.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist.