McDaniel Presses Challenge Fueled by Tea Party Backers
By Bobby Harrison, Daily Journal, May 18, 2014
JACKSON – When Chris McDaniel, a Jones County attorney and former host of a local conservative talk radio show, first won a state Senate election in 2007, the Tea Party did not exist.
But it didn’t take the two long to find each other.
When the Tea Party formed nationally in 2010 and filtered into Mississippi, followers lamented what they saw as government overreach and secular forces stomping out their views and values.
McDaniel already was talking about those things – first on his radio show and then in the Mississippi Senate.
Now he is talking on the campaign trail about freedom, of the Republican Party needing to operate “in bold colors, not pastels,” and of how compromising “constitutional principles” is not acceptable as he bids to upend veteran U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran in the June 3 Republican primary.
Local and national Tea Party-related groups are backing his campaign.
At a recent event in central Mississippi, Pat Bruce, a Madison County Tea Party organizer, recalls a 2010 rally at the state Capitol in perhaps the heyday of the Tea Party. “As I listened to him it did my heart so much good,” she said.
Bruce joked to the group as she introduced McDaniel that she not only liked what he said, but also how he looked.
“That young man looks presidential,” Bruce said she thought on that day in 2010.
McDaniel, 42, is the young man in the race against the 76-year-old Cochran, but at times his formal speech style seems from an older era as he speaks about the nation’s Founding Fathers and how they would have disdain for the current state of affairs.
“Enough,” says McDaniel in an accent and speech pattern that belies his Jones County birth in the heart of the state’s Piney Woods. “We have to fight with conviction. We have to fight with courage. We have to fight with principle. We have compromised our Republic away…It is time to stand up for what we believe in.”
McDaniel’s path from Jones County attorney/radio talk show host to Tea Party favorite began in 2007 when he agreed to head up the Jones County campaign effort for then-Auditor Phil Bryant, who was running for lieutenant governor. Bryant, McDaniel recalled, urged him to run for the vacant state Senate seat, which he won in both the primary and general elections by comfortable margins. His advantages included his ability to communicate and his father.
Carlos McDaniel, who died in a car crash in 1999, was a well-known Jones County Junior College instructor who also was head of the intramural department at the two-year school. On the weekends, Carlos McDaniel broadcast South Jones High School and JCJC football games. “I used to think that was the biggest thing in the world, my dad being on the radio,” McDaniel recalled.
Like his father, McDaniel developed a love of basketball. He played at Jones and William Carey College, but says his basketball playing after high school was hindered by a stress fracture that would never heal.
Love of basketball, as well as conservative politics, made him and fellow freshman Michael Watson, R-Pascagoula, instant friends in the Legislature.
After being elected, Watson remembers a mutual friend telling him that he and McDaniel would get along well. McDaniel and his wife found themselves sitting at the table with Watson and his wife at a pre-session banquet for Senate freshmen.
Watson’s friend was correct. They became fast buddies. They worked together to pass immigration legislation to require that employers verify the people they hire were in the country legally even though the proposal was opposed by then-Gov. Haley Barbour.
During the most recent term, McDaniel has at times butted heads with fellow Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves. McDaniel and Watson have formed a Conservative Coalition, viewed as opposition to Reeves. In reality, though, the coalition’s votes have only rarely differed from the Senate Republican majority.
One difference was during the past session when McDaniel and the coalition tried unsuccessfully to block the state from enacting the Common Core academic standards.
McDaniel’s legislative accomplishments are varied, touching both on large constitutional questions and issues that affect his district in the Pine Belt of south Mississippi. Last session, his Mississippi Student Religious Act was signed into law by the governor. It required school boards to set policies that allow religious expression.
He has not been as successful in some other areas, such as proposals to require state enforcement of federal immigration laws.
In earlier sessions, he led the effort to enhance the penalty for someone who passed a stopped school bus after a Jones County youth was killed at a bus stop.
He has highlighted his fiscal conservatism and says he will take those principles to the nation’s capital. But he has supported more than $1 billion in bond bills during his tenure, though he has voted against some bond proposals.
McDaniel maintains he has voted against more bonds than just about any other legislator. But he said he has voted for bonds when he thought they were proper, such as for economic development projects and infrastructure. He said part of the problem is that the leadership includes multiple bond proposals in one bill, making it difficult to vote against the package if there are worthy individual proposals.
McDaniel said in D.C. his first bill will be an effort to put in motion a constitutional amendment to limit the terms of members of the U.S. House and Senate.
McDaniel has not made term limits part of his state legislative agenda. He said that after his efforts to eliminate the special retirement package for legislators were blocked repeatedly by the leadership, he viewed any efforts on term limits as pointless. He has filed legislation, though, to reduce the size of the Legislature.
The campaign between the two Republicans has been contentious. McDaniel has been criticized for missing votes in the state Senate while campaigning and for not voting in some past elections. He also has been criticized for remarks made on his radio show that some have described as racially insensitive.
McDaniel said these are desperate tactics, pointing out that the remarks were made 10 years ago.
“Let’s talk about the issues,” he said, though he has not been reluctant to talk about Cochran’s votes from years ago.
While McDaniel often makes waves, he is not confrontational. Despite some stark differences with fellow members, he has remained affable when at the well of the Senate even when at times being questioned aggressively about his views by fellow senators.
“I love people,” McDaniel said recently. “I love the debate….I even love the challenge of tough questions.”
Watson said, “I know Chris. I know his faith. I know his courage. I know what he stands for. He has become not only a friend, but a mentor not only as a legislator, but for how a person should lead his life.”
The only negative about McDaniel that Watson could think was “he fouls me too much” in Senate basketball games.
The question is will people think McDaniel fouled too much in trying to defeat the generally popular Cochran, who in 1978 when he first won the Senate election, became the first Republican elected statewide since the 1800s.
McDaniel said Mississippi, one of the most conservative states in the nation, should elect a senator who takes the lead in opposing national Democrats on issues. Instead, McDaniel says Cochran has settled in as part of the Washington establishment, looking to do favors with senators to get what he wants. McDaniel says the result of that policy is that the country is suffering.
“Senator Cochran is a good man,” McDaniel said. “I will defend him in this room as a good person…But don’t tell me he is a conservative.”
McDaniel Presses Challenge Fueled by Tea Party Backers