Mississippi's 2018 U.S. Senate race is poised to be the next possible front in the fight between rival wings of the Republican Party, a campaign that could test how the GOP's populist and establishment forces engage in the aftermath of this month's bitter Alabama contest.
If state Sen. Chris McDaniel, the hard right's top recruit for the seat, decides to challenge Sen. Roger Wicker (R), he will be up against the incumbent's well-funded allies and President Trump, who has pledged Wicker his support.
Those dynamics could trigger a broad intraparty clash such as the one that played out in Alabama, where the GOP lost a Senate seat for the first time in a quarter-century.
But Mississippi's insurgent faction faces brisk head winds in its bid to topple another incumbent.
McDaniel has held back from launching a high-profile challenge to Wicker as he has explored lower-risk options, including possibly succeeding Sen. Thad Cochran, who narrowly defeated him in 2014. Cochran, 80, has been battling health problems this year and has appeared to be in delicate condition at times in the Capitol, sparking speculation about how much longer he intends to stay in office. However, Republican Gov. Phil Bryant has indicated that he is not interested in naming McDaniel if the seat opens up, according to people familiar with his views.
In an interview last week, McDaniel, 45, said he will announce in January whether he will challenge Wicker. By this point in the 2014 cycle, he had launched a campaign against Cochran.
"It certainly is on my mind. I think the race will be very compelling. Nevertheless, I still have to make a final decision," said McDaniel, who added that he is also contemplating a 2019 run for lieutenant governor.
A Wicker-McDaniel battle before the June GOP primary could reprise many of the internecine attacks that played out in Alabama, where conservative former judge Roy Moore defeated Sen. Luther Strange, only to lose the general election to Democrat Doug Jones. And it would force national Republicans to contend with yet another fraught party fight as the 2018 congressional election season ramps up.
Trump would have to determine how vocal and visible a role he would be willing to play for Wicker after his political brand took a hit in Alabama, where he backed both losing candidates. Some White House aides are hoping the president will stay out of Mississippi if it becomes a messy primary.
But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has encouraged Trump to back Wicker, and in an October call the president assured Wicker of his support, according to two White House officials and a Republican close to the senator, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the private conversation. On the call, Trump noted that he is popular in Mississippi and could be of help in the state. The president did not seem very familiar with McDaniel, these people said.
A White House spokesman declined to comment on Trump's view of the race. McConnell spokesman Don Stewart declined to comment.
Meanwhile, Wicker's allies at the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the Senate Leadership Fund, a well-heeled group helmed by allies of McConnell, would also have to determine how to most effectively navigate the race. The Alabama contest exposed the dangers of appearing too cozy with their preferred candidates, as detractors branded Strange as a tool of the party establishment.
And Stephen K. Bannon, Trump's former chief strategist who has encouraged McDaniel to run, would have to judge how big a role he should play in the race after his candidate lost in Alabama. His critics are warning him to stay away.
"Is Bannon going to huff and puff and blow up another Senate race? Or is he going to leave it alone?" said Scott Reed, the senior political strategist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Bannon did not respond to a request for comment.
If McDaniel does not run, there is no obvious alternative with the name recognition and resources to wage a competitive campaign against Wicker. The filing deadline is March 1 and the primary is June 5.
McDaniel has said he favors replacing McConnell as majority leader and has sought to cast Wicker as insufficiently conservative, following the playbook that other insurgent challengers have used in recent years.
He told a member of Bryant's inner circle in mid-October that he was interested in being appointed to Cochran's seat if Cochran were to retire or die before his term expires after 2020, according to two people familiar with the situation. Around the same time, Mississippi Conservative Daily, a website that backs McDaniel, sent out an action alert calling on supporters to flood the phone lines of the governor's office requesting that he appoint McDaniel.
In the interview, McDaniel said he has had "no official conversation" with the governor's staff about an appointment.
"I know all the governor's people. They know my people," McDaniel said. "And there's been a lot of speculation about who might receive the appointment. But there's been no official conversation. No detailed conversations on it."
He said he would "potentially" be interested in filling the seat, but that there are several factors he would have to consider.
Clay Chandler, a spokesman for Bryant, said that the governor has not spoken to McDaniel about the Cochran seat.
"Mississippi is stronger because of Sen. Cochran's service, and I look forward to it continuing," Bryant said in a statement. "Speculation about anything else is insensitive, irresponsible and unfair."
Brad White, Cochran's chief of staff, said the senator "has not made any statements regarding leaving office or relinquishing his responsibilities with the Appropriations Committee. He continues to enjoy his work for Mississippi and the nation."
If Cochran were to vacate his seat next year, a special election would coincide with the Nov. 6 congressional races. The possibility of two U.S. Senate contests in Mississippi has further scrambled the state's political landscape.
Cochran narrowly defeated McDaniel in a 2014 runoff, relying on a coalition of mainstream Republicans and black Democrats in the final stretch of the campaign. The race was ugly and personal. To this day, McDaniel sounds aggrieved about the outcome of the open primary, which he said was effectively decided by Democrats rather than Republicans.
Republican strategists see Wicker, 66, as better prepared for a primary challenge now than Cochran was in 2014. He has stockpiled much more cash than Cochran did and has hit the airwaves with a television ad touting the sweeping tax bill that Senate Republicans passed and the judges they confirmed to the bench. A recent poll showed Wicker with a double-digit lead over McDaniel.
"We're going to be ready for a competitive race no matter what Sen. McDaniel decides," said Wicker campaign manager Justin Brasell.
But there are questions about how Wicker's Capitol Hill allies would navigate the contest, which has become a sensitive topic in some quarters of the party.
As he boarded a subway in the Capitol recently, NRSC Chairman Cory Gardner (Colo.) declined to comment on what the Senate GOP campaign arm has been doing to help prepare for a potentially contested primary.
One possible line of attack against McDaniel could be questioning his loyalty to Trump, even as McDaniel has pledged to fight alongside the president to "drain the swamp," according to a Republican allied with Wicker.
McDaniel was a supporter of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) in the 2016 presidential primary, serving as his state co-chair in Mississippi. Cruz, who fought Trump bitterly last year, said he thinks "very highly" of McDaniel, but will not break from his practice of staying out of GOP primaries involving his colleagues.
In recent months, McDaniel has had discussions in Texas about his emerging plans with strategists who worked on Cruz's campaign, including Jeff Roe, Cruz's 2016 campaign manager, according to Republicans familiar with the conversations.
McDaniel said his chat with Roe was among several conversations he has had with Republicans about his future. Roe declined to comment.
A pro-McDaniel super PAC called "Remember Mississippi" has been publicly encouraging him to enter the race against Wicker. "We like McDaniel's chances and are prepared to back him 100 percent should he enter the race," said Thomas Barnett, the super PAC's treasurer.
The group, named after the rallying cry taken up by McDaniel supporters after his 2014 loss, had received just one donation through the end of June: $50,000 from New York financier Robert Mercer, a longtime patron of Bannon.
Dan Eberhart, a wealthy oil industry executive, said Wednesday that he gave $25,000 to Remember Mississippi in November. He said he has been meeting with McDaniel and plans on "heavily backing him."
A spokeswoman for the organization said the super PAC has sufficient financial commitments to make the race competitive.
There are no signs that Bannon is walking away from Mississippi.
"Steve's a warrior," McDaniel said. He said Bannon has given him advice, but added that "it's not been orders."
Still, some Republicans say that Bannon's support of Moore, who was accused in the campaign of making sexual advances to teenage girls as young as 14 when he was in his 30s, has blunted his effectiveness.
McDaniel called the Alabama race an "anomaly" given the allegations Moore faced, and said the outcome did not affect his plans in Mississippi.
Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.