- The Washington Times
Monday, December 11, 2017

LAUREL, Miss. — Chris McDaniel is keeping a close eye on the U.S. Senate race in neighboring Alabama as he mulls whether to mount his own Trump-style bid to challenge Sen. Roger F. Wicker in the Republican primary in Mississippi next year.

Sitting in his law office in Laurel, Mr. McDaniel, a state senator, said the political environment is “10 times better” for a candidate in his mold than it was three years ago, when he nearly toppled Sen. Thad Cochran, a six-term senator, in an ugly primary battle.

Since then, Donald Trump’s stunning presidential victory and Alabama Republican Roy Moore’s bid for a Senate seat have told Mr. McDaniel that the Washington establishment is still missing what the voters are saying.

“Naturally, the people of Mississippi, the people of Alabama, we have never been extraordinarily trustful of D.C., but now we look at it almost with a degree of discomfort because we see the system and we think it is broken,” Mr. McDaniel told The Washington Times. “We think people like [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell are problematic. We think Congress as a whole being obstructionists is problematic. So the people of Alabama are awake. The people of Mississippi are awake, but more importantly, they are angry.”

The results in Alabama, where Roy Moore, a former state Supreme Court chief justice, faces off against Democratic nominee Doug Jones, and Mr. McDaniel’s upcoming decision, are the latest tests for Stephen K. Bannon, who after leaving the White House over the summer has vowed to field challengers to Republican incumbents who don’t join the Trump agenda.

Mr. Bannon has been recruiting candidates across the country to run against sitting Republicans and has been in regular contact with Mr. McDaniel since his failed Senate bid three years ago.

“If you talk to Bannon, he will tell you that the wake-up moment for him was when they stole the race on June 24, 2014,” Mr. McDaniel said of his previous Senate campaign. “He said he watched it and he knew right then that he could never again work within the confines of the party. He said that was a wake-up call.”

In their primary, Mr. McDaniel won 49.5 percent of the vote and Mr. Cochran won 49 percent. With neither man topping 50 percent, the race went to a runoff, where Mr. Cochran prevailed, 51 percent to 49 percent, after inviting Democrats to cross party lines to vote for him.

A super PAC, Remember Mississippi — alluding to the sense that the Cochran seat was stolen — has been established to support Mr. McDaniel, who said he feels more prepared for a run this go-round.

“We have been through the fire,” he said. “When you step on a land mine, you know the next time where not to step, and we have learned a lot about ourselves and a lot about our state. So the environment from our voters, it is a better environment for that kind of campaign, a conservative campaign. It is 10 times better because our people are more focused and more angry, and they are actively paying attention.”

Mr. McDaniel said he plans to make an announcement about his political future in January and is weighing a run for lieutenant governor, which would give him control of the flow of legislation in the state Senate.

Yet he is watching what Mr. Bannon has been able to do for Mr. Moore, and the calls are enticing.

“Bannon says U.S. Senate, and I am leaning toward that, there is no question about that,” he said. “I am leaning pretty aggressively in that direction right now.”

On Monday, Mr. Bannon headlined an election eve “Drain the Swamp” rally with Mr. Moore in southeastern Alabama. After taking a hands-off approach, Mr. Trump has followed the lead of his former strategist, backing Mr. Moore ahead of Tuesday’s election.

Mr. Bannon also is backing Danny Tarkanian’s bid against Sen. Dean Heller in Nevada, Kelli Ward’s bid for an open seat in Arizona, and Corey Stewart’s quest to unseat Sen. Tim Kaine, Virginia Democrat.

Mr. Bannon did not respond to an email seeking comment, nor did the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which lined up opposite Mr. Bannon in the Alabama primary, spending millions of dollars promoting Sen. Luther Strange, who lost by a wide margin to Mr. Moore.

Steven Law, head of the Senate Leadership Fund, a McConnell-aligned group that seeks to protect incumbent Republicans, took a shot at Mr. Bannon’s role in the race.

“It is really an embarrassment that Steve Bannon is having to pull out all the stops to drag his candidate across the finish line in a state that typically votes for the average Republican by 22 percentage points,” Mr. Law said on Fox News.

Political observers say the result in Alabama could have a huge impact on Mr. Bannon’s efforts over the next year.

“This has a different feel to it because this is really about what does the Republican Party look like moving forward,” said Ned Ryun founder and CEO of American Majority, a conservative group. “Does it become more populist and economic nationalist in its views and policies, or does 2016 look like an aberration where everything snaps back to how it had been previously for the Republican Party?”

Win or lose, Mr. McDaniel said, Mr. Moore’s victory over Mr. Strange, as well as his refusal to bend under pressure from Mr. McConnell and other Republican leaders for him to quit the race, has inspired confidence in the grass-roots push to steer the Republican Party in a more conservative direction.

“I think the people recognize that the D.C. insiders no longer control the ballgame,” he said.

“If I keep going down this road and jumped into this race, they are seeing this as the next big domino,” Mr. McDaniel said. “That is the way Bannon sees it.”

Ford O’Connell, a Republican Party strategist who worked on John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, doubted whether the Alabama election will have implications for other insurgents. He said Mr. Moore had 30 years of name ID and a loyal band of followers.

“And, frankly, when you are an insurgent candidate, you just can’t buy that support,” Mr. O’Connell said. “In Mississippi, if Wicker decides he wants to run for re-election, and I have no reason to believe he doesn’t, the establishment old guard in that state knows how to circle the wagons and protect their guy. See Thad Cochran.”

Mr. McDaniel, though, said Mr. Wicker is weak and the voting record he has established under Mr. McConnell makes him vulnerable.

“The reality is that once people see his record, they will respond. Once they recognize he is wrong on every issue from our state flag to the budget, they will respond. All they have to do is see it, and if I run, they will see it,” Mr. McDaniel said.

Mr. Wicker’s campaign did not respond to inquiries.

• Seth McLaughlin can be reached at smclaughlin@washingtontimes.com.

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