Roger Wicker is a pinko. Yes, he claims to be conservative, but every other Tuesday at 5 a.m. he goes to Nancy Pelosi’s house to give her a pedicure. Mississippi’s junior U.S. senator stands in the way of our great leader, Donald Trump. And the flag. Don’t forget, Wicker hates Mississippi’s flag.
Until last week, that was the entire narrative of state Sen. Chris McDaniel. Given the perception that an easier path to the U.S. Senate has opened up, his new narrative is those two words made famous by Gilda Radner: “Never mind.”
John Grisham, a truly magnificent Mississippian who masterfully creates novels of political intrigue, couldn’t invent this stuff.
In a flash, Wicker went from facing the electoral battle of his life to becoming a shoo-in for re-election to a new six-year term.
McDaniel, who has been fund-raising and flag-waving for years, fell haplessly into the trap laid by his party with the intent and effect of exposing him as a shallow opportunist.
The sequence of events to date has been anything but happenstance.
Since narrowly losing a primary runoff to senior U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran in 2014, McDaniel has been keeping his powder dry, popping up here and there, waving the flag and seeking donations for his “senate” race. He didn’t specify re-election to his state office or whether he would challenge Wicker. Cochran’s health hasn’t been good for several years, so McDaniel didn’t foreclose running in a special election if that developed.
The clock ticked toward the filing deadline, and with Cochran showing no sign of resigning McDaniel filed to challenge Wicker in the June 5 Republican primary. As soon as the deadline passed, Cochran announced he will retire effective April 1.
That left McDaniel to decide whether he would continue his risky challenge to Wicker or, as he did, opt to join a wide-open, non-partisan field in a special election to be on Nov. 6 along with the general election.
Perhaps the egg will wash off McDaniel’s face by then.
Before and since McDaniel’s change of heart, Gov. Phil Bryant (another closet liberal by McDaniel’s standards?) labeled McDaniel as a lightweight. “This opportunistic behavior is a sad commentary for a young man who once had great potential,” the governor said in a news release. It’s no secret that McDaniel’s backers, who are vocal if nothing else, have leaned on Bryant to appoint McDaniel as soon as Cochran’s retirement is effective. That, ostensibly, would provide a boost on voting day. It is very unlikely to happen.
In dropping his challenge to the previously evil Wicker, McDaniel carefully explained that it wasn’t about himself at all. Always the servant, he was just trying to avoid a repeat of 2017 in Alabama, where Republican infighting led to a state at least as red as Mississippi sending a Democrat to D.C. The better path, he said, was to avoid a “contentious contest among GOP members.” Not mentioned but true: A split vote looms between McDaniel and the person Bryant appoints — and is just as juicy for Democrats.
More strangeness arises from the fact that McDaniel pledges fealty to President Trump, who has endorsed Wicker. McDaniel said the president simply got bad advice. Too, the value of Trump’s blessing comes more and more into question. The president’s candidate lost in Alabama and Democrats have been picking up seats, including a Pennsylvania seat in the U.S. House held by Republicans for 15 years.
In any event, voters will get a civics refresher this year. The field is set for the general election. That filing deadline is gone. Wicker has one primary opponent remaining and the Democratic primary, also on June 5, will have six names on party ballots. Voters will be asked to choose one ballot or the other and primary winners advance to the general election.
Filing for the special election to serve the two remaining years of Cochran’s term has not begun. That contest will have no primaries and all qualifiers will be on one ballot on Nov. 6. The general election is winner take all, but a runoff will follow if no candidate receives a majority.
Bryant has nominated Agriculture Secretary Cindy Hyde-Smith to serve about eight months between Cochran’s departure and the special election. She'll be in that election with, at least, McDaniel and Democrat Mike Espy.
The public won’t see all of the jockeying that will be taking place over the next few months. That’s probably a good thing. What we’ve seen to date has been a belly full.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist.