The anti-establishment wing of the GOP, which had been relatively quiet following the White House’s public break with former adviser Steve Bannon, was reinvigorated Wednesday when state Sen. Chris McDaniel announced he will mount a primary challenge to Sen. Roger Wicker in Mississippi.
Mr. McDaniel, who had mulled the decision for months, made clear his intent was to shake things up.
“I am tired of the way things are being done in Washington. Donald Trump told us he wanted to drain the swamp, and I am going to go there to help him drain the swamp,” Mr. McDaniel said at a rally in an auditorium at Jones County Junior College in Ellisville, with a giant U.S. flag as a backdrop.
But even as he tried to claim Mr. Trump, the president was moving to back Mr. Wicker, releasing a statement of support for the 11-year Senate veteran.
“Senator Wicker was a great supporter of President Trump’s historic Tax Cuts and Jobs Act and is the type of leader the president needs to support his agenda,” the Trump campaign said Wednesday, feeding off an endorsement Mr. Trump made personally on Twitter a day earlier.
Mr. Wicker, meanwhile, said he welcomed the challenge from Mr. McDaniel.
The race is Mr. McDaniel’s second attempt to take out a sitting senator. He mounted a primary in 2014 against Sen. Thad Cochran. He took the then-six term incumbent to a runoff that McDaniels’ supporters say was “stolen” when the Cochran campaign used “race baiting” to encourage black Democrats to vote in the GOP primary against Mr. McDaniel.
This go-round, Mr. McDaniel is better organized and will have the support of the Remember Mississippi political action committee, whose name is meant to evoke the shenanigans of the 2014 primary.
The PAC has raised more than $1 million primarily through contributions from GOP megadonors Robert Mercer and Richard Uihlen, both of whom have invested tens of millions of dollars into conservative groups and causes.
While there are heated races for open GOP seats, the Mississippi race is one of the few where a major primary challenger has emerged to challenge from the right.
Mr. Bannon had said last year he wanted to field challengers in most GOP Senate races, but those efforts have yet to materialize, and Mr. Bannon himself has slipped from the front pages.
Mr. McDaniel had met with Mr. Bannon about being part of that recruiting effort last year, but after the Bannon breakup with the White House earlier this year Mr. McDaniel downplayed those ties.
Mr. McDaniel says he’s running as a firm Trump supporter — even though the president is backing Mr. Wicker.
“Thank God for President Trump, he has made Roger Wicker a conservative for about three weeks,” Mr. McDaniel said Wednesday. “He has found the light now. He senses the possibility of a primary challenger and now he wants you to forget all those bad votes.”
Mr. McDaniel said he is tired of conservatives attempting to strike deals with Democrats. He criticized Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and vowed to stand with conservative favorites: Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah.
Justin Brasell, Mr. Wicker’s campaign manager, countered that Mr. McDaniel was missing in action while Mr. Wicker was fighting to help elect Mr. Trump in 2016.
“After attacking and insulting Donald Trump and his supporters in the primary, Sen. McDaniel did nothing to help elect our President,” Mr. Brasell said. “Mississippi Republicans now have yet another opportunity to defeat Chris McDaniel — a man who has spent a decade barely showing up for work, accomplishing nothing for our conservative cause, and embarrassing all of us with his unethical, unlawful campaign tactics.”