JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — An insurgent Mississippi Republican on Wednesday once again jumped into the race for a U.S. Senate seat he sought in 2014, catching flak anew from fellow party members even though the seat will be open this time with the retirement of U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran.
State Sen. Chris McDaniel, who earlier filed to challenge incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, announced instead that he'll run for Cochran's seat after the elder senator announced his April 1 retirement.
Memories of the bitter 2014 McDaniel-Cochran primary had already surfaced Wednesday, as tea party stalwarts rallied at the Mississippi Capitol for their heartthrob McDaniel, even before he had announced the switch. They said that Gov. Phil Bryant should appoint McDaniel to the vacancy, arguing McDaniel should have won the seat anyway.
But Bryant, who already faces daily questions about who he will name to replace Cochran, instead attacked McDaniel.
"This opportunistic behavior is a sad commentary for a young man who once had great potential," Bryant said in a statement.
The remark immediately undercut McDaniel's argument that Republicans should rally around him and avoid a nasty primary battle that might give Democrats another Senate seat as the GOP seeks to hold its narrow majority.
"If we unite the party now and consolidate our resources, we can guarantee Donald Trump will have a fighter who will stand with him," McDaniel said in a statement.
It came only hours after he told The Associated Press that he hadn't decided on a switch.
The change allows McDaniel to run for a Senate seat with no incumbent and gives him more time to campaign and raise money. While the Republican primary for Wicker's seat is June 5, Cochran's seat is up for grabs in a nonpartisan election in November, which could be followed by a runoff just before Thanksgiving.
McDaniel qualified to run against Wicker in the Republican primary before Cochran announced his April 1 retirement last week. The 80-year-old senator cited poor health in stepping down.
State Republican Party spokeswoman Jennifer Dunagin said McDaniel hadn't yet officially removed his name from the primary ballot. Wicker said that until that happened, his campaign will continue as planned. Wicker is already attacking McDaniel on television saying he's not supportive enough of President Donald Trump.
"We will not take anything for granted and will continue the hard work of once again earning the support of Mississippi voters," Wicker said in a statement.
Cochran's departure set off a scramble within a state Republican Party already struggling with a disaffected conservative faction.
Bryant is under pressure to appoint someone who can keep the GOP's historical lock on the seat, with some Republican leaders fearing ultraconservative McDaniel could lose to a Democrat in the same way that Roy Moore lost to Doug Jones in Alabama last year. There has been widespread speculation that Bryant might appoint Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves or Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, both Republicans, although Bryant has ruled out appointing himself, despite entreaties from some in Washington.
McDaniel, for his part, is sounding the anti-Washington establishment theme that Moore relied on, saying he's focused on "making sure Mitch McConnell is not selecting our next senator."
There's already a Democrat eyeing the race with Mike Espy, President Bill Clinton's first agriculture secretary, saying he has a "strong intention" to run for the seat Cochran is leaving. In 1986 he became the first African-American since Reconstruction to win a congressional seat in Mississippi.
Republican intraparty tensions date to the 2014 primary, when McDaniel narrowly missed defeating Cochran in a three-way primary. Forced into a runoff, Cochran called on longstanding ties to the African-American community by successfully courting black voters who traditionally support Democrats to vote for him in the runoff.
McDaniel supporters cried foul, but Mississippi voters don't register by party, and the only people restricted from voting in a Republican runoff are those who voted in the Democratic primary for the same office. McDaniel unsuccessfully challenged his runoff loss by saying Cochran had improperly sought support from voters who never intended to support the eventual GOP nominee. McDaniel never conceded.
Tea Party leader Laura VanOverschelde told reporters Wednesday that 2014 primary was "stolen" and argued that Bryant would do long-delayed justice by appointing McDaniel.
"It would bring great healing to the Republican Party," she said.
But even before McDaniel made the switch, Bryant was downplaying the push to appoint McDaniel.
"Gov. Bryant will announce the U.S. Senate appointment once he decides who that will be," spokesman Clay Chandler said. "That decision has not been made. But he will not be affected by any political group or dynamic."