By JEFF AMY
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - With a rare opportunity to run for either of two U.S. Senate seats, an insurgent Mississippi Republican switched targets Wednesday.
State Sen. Chris McDaniel, who earlier filed to challenge incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, announced Wednesday that he'll run for Sen. Thad Cochran's seat after the elder senator announced he's retiring April 1.
The move smooths Wicker's path to re-election, turning the focus to Cochran's seat and who Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant will appoint to fill it until a Nov. 6 nonpartisan election for the remaining two years on the term.
Bryant quickly made it clear that it wouldn't be McDaniel, flicking away the aspirant's call for the party to rally behind him.
"This opportunistic behavior is a sad commentary for a young man who once had great potential," Bryant said in a statement.
McDaniel has already sought Cochran's seat once, challenging the decades-long fixture of Mississippi politics in a 2014 primary that sharply split the state's dominant party. The Republican from south Mississippi's Ellisville suggested this time should be different, saying Republicans should rally around him and avoid a nasty primary 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, only hours after he told The Associated Press that he hadn't decided on a switch.
Some Republican leaders fear tea party favorite McDaniel could lose to a Democrat in the same way that Roy Moore lost to Doug Jones in Alabama last year. Bryant is under pressure to appoint someone who can beat McDaniel and keep the GOP's historical lock on the seat. Many speculate that Bryant might appoint Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves or Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, both Republicans. Bryant has ruled out appointing himself, despite entreaties from some in Washington.
"His motivation may be finding someone who can beat McDaniel decisively," said Millsaps College Professor Nathan Shrader. The political scientist said he wasn't surprised by McDaniel's switch, saying polling data showed strong support for Wicker among Mississippi voters.
McDaniel, though, is also aiming to take down another target: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. He outlined an anti-establishment appeal, telling The Associated Press Wednesday that he's focused on "making sure Mitch McConnell is not selecting our next senator." McDaniel has said he wants to depose McConnell from his leadership role.
There's already a Democrat eyeing the race. Mike Espy, President Bill Clinton's first agriculture secretary, says 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.
If no one wins a majority in the Nov. 6 vote, the top two finishers would meet in a runoff just before Thanksgiving
McDaniel's switch also gives him more time to campaign and raise money. 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 Trump.
Meanwhile, Wicker still faces a little-known Republican challenger, plus six Democrats, including state House Minority Leader David Baria of Bay St. Louis, State Rep. Omeria Scott of Laurel, and Howard Sherman of Meridian, who's married to Mississippi-born actress Sela Ward.
Republican intraparty tensions date to the 2014 primary, when McDaniel narrowly missed defeating Cochran in a three-way race. 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. 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, saying Cochran had improperly sought support from voters who never intended to support the eventual Republican nominee.
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."