As Mississippi Republican state Sen. Chris McDaniel addressed supporters Wednesday afternoon in front of a giant American flag, an aide ran up to affix a Senate campaign sign to the candidate’s wooden podium.
“I guess the cat’s out of the bag,” McDaniel said, standing on stage at Jones Junior College in his hometown of Ellisville.
It already was. On Monday, sources close to McDaniel confirmed he’s challenging Sen. Roger Wicker in the primary in the June primary. That night, McDaniel held a Facebook live event inviting his supporters to the rally.
McDaniel took the stage Wednesday by saying he’d missed his friends from 2014, when he nearly knocked off Sen. Thad Cochran in the primary. Cochran narrowly prevailed in the primary runoff.
“We haven’t forgotten what they did in ’14,” McDaniel said. “We’re not walking away from this fight.”
McDaniel had long expressed interest in running for Senate again, but he was waiting to see what Cochran was going to do. Cochran isn’t up for re-election until 2020, but the octogenarian has suffered from health problems and could step down this year. The filing deadline for the 2018 race is Thursday.
“It feels good to be here again, doesn’t it?” McDaniel said Wednesday. He used the event to attack the political establishment — of which he said Wicker is a big part — and argued he’d be a stronger ally of President Donald Trump.
Trump endorsed Wicker in a tweet Tuesday night. The Trump campaign followed up with an endorsement statement from Lara Trump Wednesday after McDaniel’s announcement.
“They need help, don’t they?” McDaniel asked the crowd. “If we can’t find strong conservative warriors in the deep south, we’re not going to find them.”
McDaniel said that if they don’t send conservatives to the Senate, Trump will continue “to make deals,” pointing to the president’s backing of Wicker and 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s bid for Senate in Utah.
“I want to be clear, when I get there, I’m not cutting any deals,” McDaniel said. He launched into what’s become an increasingly common conservative attack on the legislative filibuster, arguing that Wicker’s support of it proves he doesn’t have Trump’s back.
Wicker, the former chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, is seen as a tougher incumbent to beat than Cochran was in 2014.
“Gayle and I are looking forward to this campaign and sharing my record of successfully fighting to reduce job-killing regulations, confirm conservative judges, enact historic tax cuts, rebuild our military, and honor our veterans,” Wicker said in a statement responding to McDaniel’s candidacy.
“We will work hard to once again earn the votes and support of all Mississippians,” he added.
Campaign manager Justin Brasell touted Wicker’s loyalty to Trump.
“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,” Brasell said in a statement.
“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,” Brasell added.
Wicker had $4.1 million in his campaign account at the end of 2017. Wicker’s campaign released two ads on Monday. One features state Sen. David Parker vouching for Wicker. It’s running on Fox in DeSoto County, which Parker represents. A second ad featuring veterans is running in the Laurel and Hattiesburg area.
McDaniel ended 2014 with just $8,000 in his campaign account. Remember Mississippi PAC, a super PAC supporting him, ended 2017 with $852,000.
Conservatives are likely to use Wicker’s past NRSC chairmanship and his large campaign coffers against him.
Watch: Fundraising Reports Say a Lot About a Campaign
“The time for career politicians is over,” Remember Mississippi PAC Treasurer Tommy Barnett said in a statement after McDaniel’s Wednesday announcement. “When Senator Wicker was elected to federal office, Windows 95 had just been released and the OJ Simpson trial had captured the attention of the country,” Barnett said.
Wicker led McDaniel in a December Mason-Dixon poll of GOP primary voters 49 to 33 percent, with 18 percent undecided. The poll surveyed 400 GOP primary voters from Dec. 13-15 on landline and cell phones. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus four percentage points. An automated poll from JMC Analytics from mid-February gave Wicker a 38 to 20 percent advantage over McDaniel, with 42 percent of GOP primary voters undecided. The margin of error was plus or minus 4.4 percent.