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Analysis: McDaniel decision will decide direction of both U.S. Senate races

CHOICE: State Sen. Chris McDaniel could choose to continue running against U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker or throw his hat in the ring for November's "jungle" primary against whoever Gov. Phil Bryant appoints. Photo by Steve Wilson

With Tuesday's decision by U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran to step down on April 1, November's election will have two U.S. Senate seats on the ballot.

State Sen. Chris McDaniel has to make a difficult choice: Battle incumbent U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker in the June 5 Republican primary for the GOP bid in the November 6 general election or enter the "jungle" primary without party affiliation against whoever Gov. Phil Bryant appoints and several likely Democrat challengers. That decision will determine the complexion of both races. 

McDaniel lost to a controversial race to Cochran in 2014 in the Republican primary and has announced he intends to take on Wicker for his seat.

Here are some of the pros and cons of each choice:

Run against Wicker

McDaniel could continue his campaign against Wicker, who was appointed by then Gov. Haley Barbour in 2007 to fill the seat of then U.S. Sen. Trent Lott, who resigned.

Wicker has the endorsement of President Donald Trump and more than $4 million cash on hand, a formidable war chest by any stretch. Unlike Cochran, there are no health concerns for Wicker.

His campaign is already airing attack ads directed at McDaniel, which has to be driven by internal polling that indicates the race might be closer than most polls indicate.

The advantage for McDaniel running for Wicker's seat is that a victory in November means he would have a full term in the Senate and have time to raise money for a possible re-election bid in 2022.

Democrats are nationally emboldened by their upset in the Alabama U.S. Senate race in December and have several strong choices — including state Rep. David Baria (D-Bay St. Louis) and Meridian businessman Howard Sherman — in the Democratic primary vying to run against the GOP nominee. With that in mind, Wicker might not be able to count on Democrat crossover votes to help him as they did Cochran in the 2014 runoff election. 

To summarize, the advantage for McDaniel to run against Wicker is that the reward for victory will be higher (a full Senate term), but he'll be doing so against an established, well-funded incumbent. If the mood of the GOP electorate isn't as rebellious as it was in 2014, Wicker could cruise to an easy victory.

If McDaniel decides to run for Cochran's seat, Wicker is almost guaranteed a double-digit win in the general election.

Run for Cochran's seat

The other option for McDaniel to run for Cochran's open seat, which will be filled after Bryant's appointment. First, Bryant will appoint someone to fill Cochran's seat, which will be open April 1 when the 80-year-old senator resigns.

Who that could be is the big question, as many GOP statewide elected officials could be in the running, including House Speaker Philip Gunn, Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, Agriculture Commissioner Cindy Hyde-Smith and others. Bryant offered a clue about what he wanted in an interview this week.

"I think what I want is someone that can serve for 20 or 25 years," Bryant said. "Someone that can go there and be the next Thad Cochran, Trent Lott." 

That means Bryant wants to appoint a younger officeholder and that gives Gunn a big advantage. He's only age 55, with a lack of statewide name recognition being his only weakness. With the Legislature likely finishing the session before April 1, he'll be free to head to Washington.

McDaniel would have the advantage of having a head start on raising money on whoever Bryant appoints, but he'll also have to compete against several Democratic challengers, including former U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy.

To win the non-affiliated primary, a candidate will need to get 50 percent or more of the vote, which will be highly unlikely on a ballot with Bryant's appointee and several Democrats. Runoff turnout is a big unknown. 

Running for Cochran's seat would force the winner to turn around and defend their seat in 2020. In the case of a McDaniel win in a likely runoff, Democrats could possibly sense a vulnerability and flood the state with money for a challenger. Or a well-funded GOP establishment challenger could present an issue in the primary. If history holds, Bryant's appointee likely will have a big advantage going into the November election.

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