Mississippi state senator Chris McDaniel may be running for the Republican nomination for one of his state’s U.S. Senate seats, but he’ll be the first to tell you that he puts his conservative principles ahead of his allegiance to party.
McDaniel’s proudest moment back home came when he tried to override a veto from Republican governor Haley Barbour — one of the GOP establishment’s eminent figures — to rein in the state’s aggressive use of eminent domain for redevelopment purposes.
“Private property is one of the cornerstones of our Constitution. And if the government can take it arbitrarily for almost any purpose, then we are not truly a free people,” McDaniel tells me over breakfast in Washington, D.C.
Now he’s taking on Republican senator Thad Cochran, an old-school appropriator who has been serving in Congress for 41 years.
Until Cochran announced last month that he would run again, the chatter in Washington was that McDaniel may have launched his campaign too soon, forcing Cochran to step aside and giving the state’s GOP establishment an opportunity to bring forward another candidate it prefers to McDaniel.
But the 76-year-old Cochran’s surprise announcement prompted one neutral GOP operative to proclaim it was a best-case scenario for McDaniel. Polls show the two deadlocked, a definite warning sign for an incumbent.
McDaniel situates himself on the side of conservatives in a decades-long battle for control over the GOP. It’s clear from his language and priorities that he’s not just in the conservative movement but of it.
“We’ve seen this before. Whether it’s Eisenhower–Taft or Goldwater–Rockefeller or Reagan–Ford — this is a continuation of that fight. I’m a Reaganite. I’m a conservative. I believe in liberty. And like a lot of Mississippians, I’m frustrated. We’re not heading in the right direction,” he says.
The conservative outside groups — including the Club for Growth and the Senate Conservatives Fund — quickly lined up their support behind McDaniel, giving him momentum and a financial boost. He’s aware that debate has been raging about the groups’ role in D.C., and, not surprisingly, he sides with them.
“Courage is the rarest commodity in Washington, D.C.,” McDaniel says, calling the fall push by senators Ted Cruz and Mike Lee to defund Obamacare — the push that prompted the government shutdown — “inspirational.”
Barbour, meanwhile, is not a fan. “I think he will get his head handed to him, and that will be what he deserves,” the former governor, now a lobbyist, said of McDaniel before he announced his primary bid.
But the rebellious McDaniel says, in his smooth southern drawl: “It was not my intention, nor will it ever be, to kiss the ring.” In considering the run, he says, he went “straight to the people” rather than consulting with insiders.
A lawyer whose father was a college professor, McDaniel is erudite and often brings the discussion back to the Constitution. He says he is the type of Republican who wants to bring the federal government back down to its enumerated powers in the Constitution.
“In my soul I believe I’m first and foremost a Jeffersonian. I admire Taft, of course. I admire Goldwater. Reagan, obviously. I’m very interested in Austrian economics, whether it be Hayek or even earlier philosophers like Bastiat — philosophers that value freedom as opposed to statism,” he says .
It’s never easy to unseat a sitting senator, but McDaniel seems to have as good a shot as any of the challengers this cycle. If he wins, Cruz, Lee, and Rand Paul will likely have themselves a fellow traveler to cause trouble with.
— Jonathan Strong is a political reporter for National Review Online.