JACKSON, Miss. — State Sen. Chris McDaniel is dropping out of the race against U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker to run for the seat Sen. Thad Cochran is vacating April 1.
McDaniel said that supporters have been urging him to run for the soon-to-be-open Cochran seat, and that they say it's his best path to win a Senate election. He would have faced a June 5 primary against Wicker. Now he will run in a Nov. 6 special election without a primary.
"By announcing early, we are asking Mississippi Republicans to unite around my candidacy and avoid another contentious contest among GOP members that would only improve the Democrats' chances of winning the open seat," McDaniel said. "If we unite the party now and consolidate our resources, we can guarantee Donald Trump will have a fighter who will stand with him."
But Gov. Phil Bryant is expected to name a Republican other than McDaniel to temporarily fill Cochran's seat until the Nov. 6 special election. And McDaniel hasn't endeared himself to the state GOP establishment, which McDaniel has railed against for years.
"This opportunistic behavior is a sad commentary for a young man who once had great potential," Bryant said in a written statement on Wednesday.
Sources close to the governor — who himself has tea party and conservative bona fides — say he is looking specifically for a Republican who can beat McDaniel. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a target of McDaniel's anti-establishment push, and President Trump had urged Bryant to appoint himself to the post, something the governor has said he would not do.
Trump, who had voiced support for McDaniel in 2014, recently had endorsed Wicker over McDaniel. McDaniel, who said he supports Trump, had said this was just Trump receiving bad advice from "the Washington machine." Wicker's campaign had already been making hay with anti-Trump statements McDaniel had made in 2016 when McDaniel ran Ted Cruz's presidential campaign in Mississippi.
Members of the national FreedomWorks organization and the Mississippi Tea Party at the Capitol on Wednesday called on Bryant to appoint McDaniel to the Cochran seat before the special election.
It's a Senate seat McDaniel would already hold, those at Wednesday's rally and McDaniel say, if not for dirty tricks and Democrats raiding the 2014 primary runoff between Cochran and McDaniel.
Supporters on Wednesday also said that since Bryant has been known as "the tea party governor" and enjoyed support from the conservative group, he should listen to their request.
"We are simply suggesting — strongly — that the governor do what we see as the right thing to to," said Laura Van Overschelde, chairwoman of the Mississippi Tea Party.
The Rev. C.L. Bryant with national FreedomWorks said: "The people of Mississippi have already spoken as far as Chris McDaniel is concerned, and we do believe the logical choice for the replacement of Thad Cochran is the person the people of Mississippi have already voted for."
About 20 people attended the rally and news conference at the Capitol on Wednesday. McDaniel did not attend the rally — saying his campaign had nothing to do with it — and had said as late as late Wednesday morning that he still hadn't decided whether to switch races.
Sources close to Bryant say the governor has been angered by a drive to appoint McDaniel that began even before Cochran announced his retirement.
A Bryant spokesman on Tuesday issued a terse statement about the McDaniel rally, saying the governor has not made a decision and "will not be affected by any political group or dynamic."
"The governor believes Sen. McDaniel should focus his energy on the campaign to which he is committed," the statement said.
McDaniel has recently accused McConnell of trying to meddle in Mississippi politics in order to hold onto power. In a statement announcing his switch to the Cochran seat race, McDaniel warned such actions could create a "contentious primary in a deep red state" where GOP donors otherwise wouldn't have to sink large campaign funds. He also warned it could turn out like Alabama's recent race, where internecine Republican fighting resulted in a Democrat winning a Senate seat there for the first time since 1992.
McDaniel said a McConnell super PAC spent $8 million in Alabama to thwart Republican Mo Brooks, a move that ultimately led to Democrat Doug Jones winning.
"When you look at how the establishment works to keep conservatives like Mo Brooks from winning a U.S. Senate seat only to lose the seat entirely, you have to conclude that Mitch McConnell and his lieutenants would rather lose a seat to a Democrat than elect a conservative.
"It's no secret that the Mississippi Republican establishment has been coordinating with Mitch McConnell to do everything in their power to keep me from getting elected to the United States Senate ... McConnell wants to hand-pick our next senator. I understand why. It's because they know that I won't be answering to them, I'll be answering to the voters of Mississippi, and putting Mississippi first."
Wicker on Wednesday said that until McDaniel officially removes his name from the race, "we have no choice but to continue our campaign as planned."
"Gayle and I are grateful for the outpouring of support we're receiving from all over the state," Wicker said. "We will not take anything for granted and will continue the hard work of once again earning the support of Mississippi voters."
Follow Geoff Pender on Twitter: @GeoffPender