In Hyde-Smith, McDaniel will face tough opponent who can hit back

Published 11:11 am Wednesday, March 28, 2018

By Sid Salter

State Sen. Chris McDaniel said famously last month that “I’m looking for a fight” in either challenging incumbent Mississippi U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker’s re-election bid, running again for the seat held by U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran (that McDaniel narrowly lost in 2014) if and when he stepped down, or running for lieutenant governor of Mississippi in 2019.

In the days that followed, Cochran announced his decision to step down from office on April 1 – an announcement coming well after McDaniel had already qualified to make the U.S. Senate race against Wicker. McDaniel’s decision to challenge Wicker was an 11th-hour decision clearly impacted by the filing deadline in the Wicker race. What, pray tell, was a big, bad swamp drainer, freedom fighter and liberty lover like McDaniel to do if Cochran decided not to step down as predicted?

Email newsletter signup

McDaniel chose to challenge Wicker and when Cochran’s retirement announcement indeed came, it was evident from polling that McDaniel’s U.S. Senate political ambitions faced a far tougher challenge against the incumbent Wicker than for the open seat vacated by Cochran.

Long before McDaniel formally announced his challenge of Wicker, the then-junior senator methodically put together a grassroots organization across the state, geared up a campaign staff and raised a formidable campaign war chest. When McDaniel formally entered the race against him, Wicker’s forces launched a blistering TV ad campaign that focused voter attention on McDaniel’s actual record as opposed to his lofty and often fact-challenged campaign rhetoric.

Meanwhile, Cochran’s retirement announcement prompted Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant to make a decision about appointing a successor to fill the Cochran’s seat until a special election on Nov. 6, 2018.

Given that Cochran’s retirement announcement was a telegraphed political decision for several months, Bryant had plenty of time to develop a short list of contenders and to carefully vet those individuals. Bryant chose former three-term state senator and two-term state Commissioner of Agriculture and Commerce Cindy Hyde-Smith of Brookhaven.

Smith is a conservative family cattle farmer and a stockyard owner. As a state senator, Smith chaired the Senate Agriculture Committee and became an expert on broad agriculture policies. Smith co-chaired President Donald Trump’s Agriculture Policy Advisory Committee.

That announcement prompted the entry of Democrat Mike Espy, the former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture and former Mississippi Second District U.S. representative, into the race for the Cochran seat. Then came McDaniel’s announcement that he was, in fact, not running against Wicker but instead jumping into the race for the open Cochran seat with Smith, Espy and whomever else may decide to throw their hat in the ring.

Assuming McDaniel eventually does what he has said he will do and removes his name from the 2018 Republican U.S. Senate Primary for the seat held by incumbent Mississippi U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker – something he, in fact, hasn’t yet done – the flamboyant Ellisville trial lawyer and state legislator will face the very fight he claimed he was looking for.

For the good of the Republican Party, mind you (or so they said), McDaniel’s supporters tried to lean on Bryant to appoint McDaniel to hold the open seat until the special election. But Bryant bucked that pressure and appointed Smith, one of McDaniel’s Mississippi state Senate colleagues, to the post.

In 2014, McDaniel challenged an old lion in Cochran who was not by temperament confrontational or mean-spirited and who was hampered by declining health. He was not inclined or physically able to counter some of what he understatedly called the “shenanigans” of the race. He didn’t hit back much.

In Smith and in Espy, McDaniel will face veteran public officials who can give as good as they get. Both have been through tough prior campaigns and tough circumstances before. These opponents won’t be made McDaniel’s punching bags. They will hit back.

Say you’re “looking for a fight,” Sen. McDaniel? Congratulations, sir. Seems you found one.

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at