The recent Republican primary result in a special election for a U.S. Senate seat in Alabama is encouraging tea party conservative Chris McDaniel to consider taking another stab at pulling the improbable in Mississippi — unseating a longtime congressional incumbent.
McDaniel has reason for thinking he could convince voters in this state to do something they historically have almost never done — unseat an incumbent absent an embarrassing scandal.
First, he came mighty close to turning the trick in 2014, when he would have probably defeated Mississippi’s senior senator, Thad Cochran, if not for crossover Democratic votes in a Republican primary runoff.
Plus, he sees the victory of a similar ultraconservative firebrand, Roy Moore, in Alabama — plus Donald Trump’s election last year to the presidency — as affirmation that the Republican Party in general, and the South in particular, is trending heavily toward the far right wing and against the dominant “establishment” segment of the GOP.
But, McDaniel and those encouraging him to run — such as the Machiavellian former Trump aide Steve Bannon — are overlooking a few points.
First, Roy Moore hasn’t won yet. He still has to face a credible Democratic opponent, Doug Jones, in a December 12 general election. Jones is a former U.S. attorney who successfully prosecuted members of the Ku Klux Klan for one of the nation’s more heinous civil rights crimes, the 1963 bombing of a black church in Birmingham that killed four girls. The odds are still in Moore’s favor, but the twice-removed former judge is a weaker candidate in the general election than the Republican he beat, Luther Strange, would have been. If Jones pulls the upset, all the supposed harbingers from Strange’s defeat fly out the window.
Second, Mississippi’s Roger Wicker, whom McDaniel would be trying to unseat, is no Luther Strange. One reason Strange did poorly is he didn’t have the same power of incumbency as Wicker’s 22 years in Washington, and what incumbency Strange did earn was ethically tainted. He was appointed in February by then-Gov. Robert Bentley to fill the seat vacated by Jeff Sessions when Sessions became Trump’s attorney general. At the time, Strange, as attorney general of Alabama, was supposed to be investigating Bentley in a sex scandal. The appointment to the Senate ended the probe, creating the appearance that Strange had struck a corrupt bargain with Bentley, who resigned in disgrace a couple of months later.
Third, Wicker is no Thad Cochran. Despite all the respect that Cochran accumulated during six terms in the Senate, he was a poor campaigner who did little to dispel the image in 2014 that he had lost his vigor and was being propped up by others to stay in office longer than he should have. Wicker, 66, is in his political prime and won’t be outcompliment the way Cochran was.
Fourth, McDaniel has few friends within the Mississippi Republican Party, and none outside of it. He’s burned a lot of bridges with those who call the shots in the state Legislature, where he serves as a senator, and he’s been relegated to inconsequential roles there. He can run against the “establishment” all he wants but that means running against some folks who have been pretty successful in getting elected to statewide office in Mississippi — Gov. Phil Bryant, former Gov. Haley Barbour, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, and so on.
If McDaniel runs, he’ll certainly make things interesting, and he’ll probably cost Wicker some sleep. But in the end, we’d be shocked if he were to be successful.