After waiting around to see if senior senator Thad Cochran might resign and open up an easier path to Washington, fiery conservative Chris McDaniel, the man who nearly ended Cochran’s career in a 2014 primary, has decided to run against the junior senator from Mississippi, Roger Wicker. McDaniel’s announcement is scheduled to happen tomorrow.
So it’s interesting that today, when Wicker is technically the only Republican candidate in the field for 2018, President Trump reached out to endorse him:
This is significant in part because Trump endorsed McDaniel in his challenge to Cochran in 2014. But what it feels most like is Trump’s 2017 endorsement of Alabama’s Luther Strange, another generally pro-Trump Establishment Republican under attack from a real conservative (or in Strange’s case, two of them).
You have to figure that Wicker or Mitch McConnell or perhaps both of these senators got to the White House the minute it was plain McDaniel was entering the race and secured the presidential Twitter-dorsement. This leaves McDaniel with the same dilemma that Alabama Trump-worshipers Mo Brooks and Roy Moore had when Big Luther got the bid over there. Does he suggest the president has been duped by the wily Mitch and other Establishment types? Or does he go full Bannon and make himself out to be more of a Trumpist than Trump?
In a recent interview McDaniel took the middle ground and argued that Trump had to work with what he had in the Senate, but might secretly prefer someone more rigorously MAGA-devoted like himself:
[A]s part of the chess game he’s playing, [Trump] does have to occasionally reach out and endorse a (former Alabama Republican Sen.) Luther Strange. Sometimes he has to do that to maintain his votes in the Senate. But if you get around to the heart of it, he went there to drain the swamp, not perpetuate it. Though he may have to endorse a Luther Strange, in his heart of hearts, he would much rather see new people in Washington. He made that promise to us on the campaign trail, and I believe him.
So McDaniel ought to be able to roll with Trump’s endorsement of his opponent just fine, suggesting he’s “in his heart of hearts” on Team Chris, whatever he says formally about the race. And then Trump will have to decide how much to invest in Wicker’s renomination, and whether he wants to alienate the national movement-conservative community that hates Mitch McConnell and loves Chris McDaniel.
It’s a chess game, all right. And one of the key chess pieces will be the question of whether Mississippi Democrats can exploit GOP divisions by recruiting a Senate candidate with half the chops of Doug Jones. They don’t have much time to get that done. In the meantime, Mississippi Republicans will go to war with each other.