Mississippi state Sen. Chris McDaniel, a longtime ally of neo-Confederate groups who almost ousted the late Sen. Thad Cochran in the 2014 Republican primary, announced Monday that he’d challenge Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann in this year’s nomination contest for one of the most powerful offices in this red state.
McDaniel, who entered the race just two days before candidate filing closed, asked his audience, “Do you want a Trump or DeSantis, or do you want a Mitt Romney or a Liz Cheney?” The state senator argued he was trying to beat Hosemann in the Aug. 8 primary by casting the incumbent, who leads the state Senate, as a moderate whose “beliefs align more with the Democratic Party than they do with the party of Reagan and Goldwater.”
Among other things, McDaniel faulted Hosemann for appointing his Democratic colleagues as committee chairs, supporting a Medicaid expansion for postpartum mothers, and telling Trump’s bogus “election integrity” panel to “go jump in the Gulf” back in 2017. “There is no honor in compromise,” he declared, “There is only weakness in surrender.” Hosemann’s team responded to the challenge by defending his conservative credentials and blasting McDaniel as “the least effective politician in the state with the largest ego.”
Two little-known candidates also are competing for the GOP nod, and their presence could prevent either Hosemann or McDaniel from winning the majority of the vote they’d need to avoid a runoff on Aug. 29. Governors and lieutenant governors compete in separate elections, and whoever wins this primary will be the favorite against Ryan Grover, a graphic designer who was the one Democrat to file, to take what’s arguably the most influential job in Mississippi politics.
The lieutenant governor controls the state Senate’s committee assignments, including chairmanships, which gives them a massive amount of influence over what legislation does or does not pass. The state Supreme Court in 1987 upheld the office’s powers, much to the disappointment of one dissenting justice who called the post “a powerful legislative creature, a super-senator, vested with sufficient legislative authority to virtually dominate the entire Senate.”
McDaniel is aiming to become this “super-senator” almost a decade after he almost joined the U.S. Senate by toppling Cochran. McDaniel rallied the still-powerful tea party to take on the incumbent, whom he also went after for being too willing to compromise, and he immediately earned endorsements from anti-establishment groups who also detested the veteran appropriator. Cochran, meanwhile, never seemed to recognize what direction his party was heading in, and he didn't have the fire-in-the-belly conservatism that primary voters craved.
McDaniel, a former radio host who had a long record of delivering speeches at Sons of Confederate Veterans gatherings, emerged as the frontrunner even after some of his old misogynistic rantings surfaced. (To take just one example: "It's so interesting to see this woman basically using her boobies to—I shouldn't have said that—using her breasts to run for office.") McDaniel also seemed to ride out ugly headlines describing how one of his allies was arrested for covertly filming Cochran’s ailing wife, Rose Cochran, at her nursing home.
McDaniel outpaced the incumbent 49.5-49.0 in the primary, but the presence of a minor third candidate kept him from taking the majority he needed to win outright. The state senator still seemed to be on track for a knockout win a few weeks later, though, even after one of his top staffers was found locked inside the Hinds County courthouse hours after officials finished tabulating votes there.
What instead followed, though, was a truly nasty three-week runoff that did not go according to plan for McDaniel. Cochran highlighted his long ties to the state’s Black voters to encourage this heavily Democratic group to vote in the Republican contest, a strategy that made all the difference. The senator, powered by the strong turnout in predominantly African American districts, won 51-49, a result that McDaniel and his allies refused to accept. The defeated challenger instead argued in court that Democratic voters had illegally voted in the GOP primary and demanded a new election, which he never got.
McDaniel, who did win another term in the state Senate the next year, announced in 2018 that he’d challenge Mississippi’s other Republican senator, Roger Wicker, but the two never faced off. Cochran, who was in poor health, resigned a short time later, and McDaniel quickly entered the officially nonpartisan special election to succeed the man he still refused to accept had beaten him. But his campaign against appointed Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, who had Donald Trump’s endorsement, never caught fire, and he finished a distant third in the nonpartisan primary with just 16%.
McDaniel once again remained in the state Senate, and he was a vocal opponent of the 2020 drive to retire the 126-year-old state flag, which prominently displayed the Confederate battle emblem, in the face of a boycott by the NCAA and SEC. He argued the plan was part of the “rise of a very intolerant faction on the American Left,” and he dismissed a poll showing that voters wanted to do away with the banner as “absolute nonsense.” The GOP-dominated legislature ended up retiring the flag, and voters went on to approve a new design months later.
McDaniel now is once again going after an incumbent from his own party, though this time, he’s sacrificing his spot in the upper chamber in order to do it. He said at his kickoff that he actually has always respected Cochran, who died in 2019, and would like to meet the late senator’s family: The Clarion-Ledger, referencing the illicit recording of Rose Cochran, wrote, “They have thus far refused to meet with him in the nine years following the scandal.”