McDaniel makes GOP Senate challenge official in Miss.

McDaniel makes GOP Senate challenge official in Miss.
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Mississippi State Sen. Chris McDaniel announced a challenge Wednesday to Sen. Roger WickerRoger Frederick WickerAt least Alzheimer’s research is bringing Washington together McConnell urging Mississippi gov to appoint himself if Cochran resigns: report Senate Republicans call on Trump to preserve NAFTA MORE (R-Miss.) in Mississippi’s GOP primary, setting the stage for a contentious primary fight.

McDaniel’s challenge had been long expected, after he made a surprisingly strong but ultimately failed bid in 2014 against Sen. Thad CochranWilliam (Thad) Thad CochranOvernight Finance: Breaking down Trump's budget | White House finally releases infrastructure plan | Why it faces a tough road ahead | GOP, Dems feud over tax-cut aftermath | Markets rebound McConnell tees up budget deal McConnell urging Mississippi gov to appoint himself if Cochran resigns: report MORE (R-Miss.). 

On Wednesday, McDaniel much of his announcement speech railing against the political establishment in Washington and laying into Wicker.

“If Washington looks down on us, and they do, it’s because men like Roger Wicker failed to stand for you,” McDaniel said to a rally in Ellisville, Miss.

“Roger Wicker is one of the most liberal Republican members of Congress.” 

Speaking behind an enormous American flag at Jones Junior College in Ellisville, where his parents once worked, McDaniel repeatedly recalled his 2014 race, a remarkably contentious fight.

McDaniel framed his 2018 race as unfinished business with the Washington establishment, which had helped put Cochran over the finish line. 

“The establishment will do anything to maintain their power. They'll say anything, they'll make any accusation, they will destroy as many lives as they can to maintain their own power. We've seen this in other states and we know how Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellLawmakers feel pressure on guns Bipartisan group of House lawmakers urge action on Export-Import Bank nominees Curbelo Dem rival lashes out over immigration failure MORE likes to behave when he feels threatened: dirty tricks, dirty campaigns,” McDaniel said.

“We haven’t forgotten what they did in ‘14, we know what they are capable of. We are not walking away from this fight.”

McDaniel faces an uphill battle against Wicker.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is backing the incumbent, which gives Wicker support from well-funded McConnell allies like the Senate Leadership Fund super PAC. And President TrumpDonald John TrumpAccuser says Trump should be afraid of the truth Woman behind pro-Trump Facebook page denies being influenced by Russians Shulkin says he has White House approval to root out 'subversion' at VA MORE tweeted his support for Wicker on Tuesday, making it harder for McDaniel to pitch himself as the choice for Trump loyalists.

Wicker, the former chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, also has $4 million in his campaign account. McDaniel effectively closed out his campaign account after his 2014 race.

In the 2014 fight, McDaniel accused Cochran’s campaign of convincing African-American Democrats to vote in the primary for Cochran, while McDaniel supporters sparked a controversy by publishing pictures of Cochran's wife in a nursing home. 

After topping Cochran in a primary but failing to secure a majority vote needed to avoid a runoff, McDaniel ultimately lost by a slim margin. But he refused to concede, lobbing accusations of voter fraud at the Cochran campaign. 

McDaniel’s tough tone on Wednesday, blasting Wicker as a traitor to his constituents and castigating the Washington establishment for not valuing “fly-over country,” makes it clear that the primary could once again turn ugly.

The Wicker campaign returned fire in a statement of its own from campaign manager, Justin Brasell, pointing to McDaniel’s criticisms of Trump while he was backing Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzOvernight Health Care: Trump eases rules on insurance outside ObamaCare | HHS office on religious rights gets 300 complaints in a month | GOP chair eyes opioid bill vote by Memorial Day HHS official put on leave amid probe into social media posts Trump, Pence to address CPAC this week MORE’s presidential campaign.

“While Roger Wicker was speaking on Donald Trump's behalf at the Republican National Convention and traveling the country to help elect President Trump and Republican U.S. Senators, Chris McDaniel was missing.  After attacking and insulting Donald Trump and his supporters in the primary, Senator McDaniel did nothing to help elect our President,” Brasell said. 

“Mississippi Republicans now have yet another opportunity to defeat Chris McDaniel - a man who who has spent a decade barely showing up for work, accomplishing nothing for our conservative cause, and embarrassing all of us with his unethical, unlawful campaign tactics.”

McDaniel’s political future had been an open question in Mississippi since his defeat.

Some believed he might wait to either challenge Cochran in 2020, or run for Cochran's seat if the 79-year-old senator stepped down for health reasons in the interim. 

With his state’s filing deadline on Thursday, McDaniel had to make up his mind. But a bid wouldn't preclude him from running for Cochran's seat if he was to retire at some point before the primary, and would put him in a strong position if he's already campaigning statewide. 

The state senator is no question a tougher candidate than he was in 2014 — he has supporters and experienced gleaned from his last statewide bid as well as a super PAC in his corner that has about $1 million in the bank.

But Trump’s decision to endorse Wicker, which he announced Tuesday night in a clear attempt to kneecap McDaniel, narrows the window for an anti-establishment challenge.

And while McDaniel was expected to have received a boost from former White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon to help him with the insurgent bid, Bannon’s influence has waned after he was quoted disparaging Trump’s son, Donald Jr., in a recent book. 

McDaniel accused Wicker of only voting with Trump because of concerns about a primary challenge. And he sought to downplay Trump’s endorsement on Wednesday, implying that Trump did so only because he acquiesced to the establishment.

“Over the past few days, he’s endorsed Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyWhat sort of senator will Mitt Romney be? Not a backbencher, even day one Trump endorses Romney in Utah Senate race Obama failed on Russia; Trump must get it right MORE, he’s endorsed Roger Wicker and he endorsed one of the Bush boys from Texas,” McDaniel said about Trump. 

“Deals. We’re not mad about it, we understand it. That’s the Washington way—you have to cut deals. But I want to be clear, when I get there, I’m not cutting any deals.” 

It’s a tactic similar to that taken by Alabama’s Roy MooreRoy Stewart MooreAmerican women will decide who wins and loses in 2018 elections Trump endorses Romney in Utah Senate race Juan Williams: Evangelicals sell their souls for Trump MORE, the former GOP nominee for Senate who won the primary running as an outsider even though Trump backed Sen. Luther StrangeLuther Johnson StrangeThe Trump Presidency: Year One Dems search for winning playbook Stephen Bannon steps down from Breitbart MORE (R-Ala.). 

One Mississippi Republican backing Wicker told The Hill he doesn’t expect the argument to work as well as it did in Alabama. 

“Sen. Strange just had a lot of baggage, Sen. Wicker doesn’t have that baggage. It’s a very different dynamic and I’m not sure that Chris McDaniel will be able to convince Trump supporters that Trump’s not strong enough to endorse the person he wants to endorse,” the Mississippi Republican said.

“[Wicker] has been a loyal vote for President Trump in the Senate, he’s got the highest percentage of voting with the president of anyone in the U.S. Senate. In a state like Mississippi, where Trump is very popular, certainly that’s a good ally to have.”