Mississippi is new headache for GOP in the South

Mississippi is new headache for GOP in the South
© Getty Images - Greg Nash

Sen. Thad CochranWilliam (Thad) Thad CochranTop 5 races to watch in 2019 Bottom Line Races Dems narrowly lost show party needs to return to Howard Dean’s 50 state strategy MORE’s (R-Miss.) impending retirement has opened a new path for Tea Party firebrand Chris McDaniel to reach the Senate — a prospect that Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump, Dems prep for Mueller report's release McConnell touts Trump support, Supreme Court fights in reelection video Why Ken Cuccinelli should be Trump's choice for DHS MORE (R-Ky.) desperately wants to avoid.

McConnell and other Republican leaders are worried about a reprise of last year’s electoral debacle in Alabama, when another conservative insurgent, Roy MooreRoy Stewart MooreGOP strategist: Alabama Republicans need to 'gather around' candidate who 'is not Roy Moore' The Hill's Morning Report — Combative Trump aims at Pelosi before Russia report Poll: Roy Moore leading Alabama GOP field MORE, capitalized on voters’ discontent with the Washington establishment to win the Republican primary, only to lose a Senate seat the GOP was expected to keep.

McConnell favored Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant (R) appointing himself to fill the vacancy created by Cochran’s retirement, but that hope crumbled Tuesday when Bryant ruled it out.  

McConnell is also mulling the prospect of Bryant tapping Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves or Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn to replace Cochran, according to GOP sources familiar with internal party discussions.

Mississippi Agriculture Commissioner Cindy Hyde-Smith’s name has also been floated as a possibility.  

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But McConnell opposes the ascension of McDaniel, a Tea Party-style conservative who tried to knock off Cochran in 2014 in a brutal, close primary, according to Senate GOP strategists familiar with McConnell’s thinking. McDaniel announced his candidacy against incumbent Sen. Roger WickerRoger Frederick WickerWe can accelerate a cure for Alzheimer's Senate panel opens investigation of FAA safety inspectors FAA faces questions about Boeing at two hearings MORE (R-Miss.) last week.

McDaniel, like Moore, has made running against McConnell and the GOP establishment in Washington his central political strategy. McDaniel blasted McConnell and Wicker on Tuesday for “blocking” President TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse Dems demand Barr cancel 'inappropriate' press conference on Mueller report DOJ plans to release 'lightly redacted' version of Mueller report Thursday: WaPo Nadler accuses Barr of 'unprecedented steps' to 'spin' Mueller report MORE’s nominees in the Senate.

“The fact is, Roger Wicker and the Senate Republican leadership are the reason for the delay in getting Trump’s nominees confirmed,” he said in a statement.

When McDaniel announced his challenge to Wicker last week, he accused him of being “too weak to stand up to Mitch McConnell.”

McDaniel is now thinking about running for Cochran’s seat instead of challenging Wicker, but hasn’t made a final decision.

One Senate Republican source warned that McDaniel could split the Republican vote under the unusual special election rules, bolstering the chances that a Democrat could win the Mississippi Senate seat.

“That puts the majority in jeopardy,” the Republican source warned.

Bryant, who has an approval rating above 50 percent, is expected to select Cochran’s replacement within 10 days of the senator’s official retirement on April 1.

That successor will then have to run in a special election in November with a format that does not designate party affiliation on the ballot and allows multiple members of the same party to compete against each other.

If no candidate manages to win majority support, the top two vote-getters will advance to a runoff.  

A Republican Party source, however, downplayed the possibility that Republicans could lose the seat, arguing that last year’s special election in Alabama was unique because Moore was accused of sexual misconduct by women when they were teenagers and he was in his 30s. 

“There’s not going to be a child predator running in other states,” the source said.

McDaniel is one of at least three Tea Party-style Republican challengers around the country who have tried to gain traction by bashing McConnell and his leadership team, sowing divisions in the Republican electorate.

Former Arizona state Sen. Kelli Ward (R), who is running to replace retiring Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakePollster says Trump unlikely to face 'significant' primary challenge Trump gives nod to vulnerable GOP Sen. McSally with bill signing Flake opens up about threats against him and his family MORE (R), has bashed McConnell as a “career insider” who routinely disappoints the conservative base.

Ward has the backing of former White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon, another avowed critic of McConnell’s record, although she distanced herself from Bannon earlier this year.

In Nevada, Danny Tarkanian, a conservative insurgent who is challenging Sen. Dean HellerDean Arthur HellerTrump suggests Heller lost reelection bid because he was 'hostile' during 2016 presidential campaign Trump picks ex-oil lobbyist David Bernhardt for Interior secretary Oregon Dem top recipient of 2018 marijuana industry money, study finds MORE (R), has also criticized McConnell for not being more ardent in his support for Trump.

Tarkanian blamed the GOP leader’s “Capitol Hill cronies” and “failures to deliver” for last year’s loss of the Alabama Senate seat, which Democrat Doug Jones won.

The Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC linked to McConnell, spent more than $10 million last year in an attempt to elect then-incumbent Sen. Luther StrangeLuther Johnson StrangeDomestic influence campaigns borrow from Russia’s playbook Overnight Defense: Senate bucks Trump with Yemen war vote, resolution calling crown prince 'responsible' for Khashoggi killing | House briefing on Saudi Arabia fails to move needle | Inhofe casts doubt on Space Force Five things to watch in Mississippi Senate race MORE (R-Ala.), who was appointed to succeed Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsThe problem for Trump appointees Juan Williams: The high price of working for Trump Trump learns to love acting officials MORE when he left to become Trump’s attorney general. But Strange eventually lost the primary to Moore, setting the stage for Moore’s special election loss.

“There’s concern and the concern is focused on three states: Mississippi, Arizona and Nevada,” said a Republican senator who requested anonymity to discuss internal political discussions about the prospects of defending the Senate GOP majority.

The lawmaker added that Joe Arpaio, the former Maricopa County, Ariz., sheriff who became famous for cracking down on illegal immigration, is also a source of concern. Arpaio announced his candidacy for Flake’s seat in January.

The senator warned that what he described as the out-of-the-mainstream views of McDaniel, Ward, Tarkanian and Arpaio could tarnish the GOP’s brand.

Republican lawmakers worry that such anti-establishment conservatives could seize on antipathy toward McConnell in particular and Congress in general to gain political momentum and open the door for Democrats in runoff and general elections.

A second Republican senator warned that McDaniel, who has a history of making controversial political statements, could become an albatross for other Senate candidates in the same way that former Missouri Rep. Todd Akin (R) and former Indiana Treasurer Richard Mourdock were in the 2012 election.

GOP leaders say Akin and Mourdock, who both made damaging remarks about rape and abortion during their bids, fumbled Senate races in Missouri and Indiana that Republicans should have won relatively easily.

McConnell told reporters in October that he would not let history repeat itself by allowing Tea Party challengers who might be less palatable to general election voters win nomination battles.

“We had an experience in 2010 and 2012 nominating candidates in primaries who couldn’t win the general election,” he said.

“Our strategy going forward is to protect our incumbents and to help people get nominated who can actually win elections,” he added.

Democrats, meanwhile, hope that GOP infighting will weaken the party and make it more likely that Senate control flips in November, even as Democrats are faced with defending more vulnerable seats than Republicans.

“Across the Senate map, Republicans are suffering nasty and expensive primaries. These intraparty fights will drain their resources, expose the flaws in all of their candidates and leave their ultimate nominees deeply damaged,” said David Bergstein, press secretary for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.