By Bobby Harrison
Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – Chris McDaniel, the man who could replace political icon Thad Cochran in the United States Senate, has been at times an outspoken member of the Mississippi Senate where he currently serves.
McDaniel, R-Ellisville, is chair of the Senate’s Conservative Coalition, which consists of 10 of the chamber’s 32 Republicans. It is generally viewed as a group that has not been part of the inner circle of Senate leadership and at times has been at odds with Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, the chamber’s presiding officer.
When the group formed earlier this summer, McDaniel said its intention was to promote conservative principles, but “we are not disgruntled. We are not unhappy. We are not rogue. We are not covert. We are not subversive.”
Among the priorities the coalition has announced is opposition to the Common Core state education standards Mississippi and most other states are in the process of implementing.
McDaniel, who is in his second term, has garnered national attention by announcing his intention of challenging Cochran, who was elected to the Senate in 1978 and has seldom faced serious opposition. The 75-year-old Cochran has not announced whether he will seek a seventh term next year. If he doesn’t, several Mississippi politicians with extensive electoral experience are expected to vie for the post.
McDaniel, a 42-year-old Jones County attorney, has brashly said he is running regardless of what Cochran does and is counting on Tea Party-thinking Republicans to carry him to victory in the June GOP primary and beyond.
McDaniel is known for displaying similar self-confidence in his time in the Mississippi Senate. A former host of a conservative radio show, he is known for giving at times impassioned, philosophical oratories from the well of the Senate where he often evokes terms such as liberty, freedom and fiscal restraint.
Such was the case earlier this year when the Senate debated expanding Medicaid to cover primarily the working poor as is allowed under the federal Affordable Care Act – legislation that McDaniel said is eating away at American liberty.
Even though it was a certainty that the Republican-dominated Senate was going to defeat the Democratic proposal, McDaniel still spoke at length about the reasons Medicaid expansion should be defeated.
As a first-term senator in 2010, McDaniel eloquently combined history and property rights when he took on then-Gov. Haley Barbour, a fellow Republican, by trying to get the chamber to override Barbour’s veto of eminent domain legislation that would prevent government from taking private land for use by private companies.
In general, McDaniel has been on the side of business like his Republican brethren, but he has not received all A’s on the scorecard put together by the influential Business and Industry Political Education Committee. In 2012, for instance, he was one of only two Republicans to receive a B. The other 30 Republicans scored A’s.
Two major tax-related proposals have come before the Senate in McDaniel’s tenure. He voted against a tobacco tax increase and for an “assessment” on hospitals to secure additional federal Medicaid funds. Both passed.
When asked about McDaniel, Sen. Dean Kirby, R-Pearl, said, “Nice guy. Very nice guy. Very proper.”
Sen. John Horhn, D-Jackson, said he has had limited dealings with McDaniel because they serve on different committees, but he said, “From a distance he seems very passionate about what he believes.”
When told that he had been described as proper, Horhn said, some people might see him as “smug,” but he believes McDaniel to be “serious about the issues he believes in.”
Reeves, who presides over the Senate, declined to talk about McDaniel, saying he does not like to comment on political races until after the deadline for candidates to qualify for the office in question.
“I learned a long time ago to never pick a horse in the race until you know all the horses who are running,” Reeves said. “That is especially true in politics.”
Some speculate that Reeves might vie for the post if Cochran does not seek re-election. That could make the 2014 session of the Legislature an interesting one.
McDaniel supported Reeves’ opponent for lieutenant governor in 2011, then-Senate President Pro Tem Billy Hewes of Gulfport.
Still, Reeves named McDaniel chair of the Elections Committee – an especially powerful post in years when the Legislature has to redraw its districts to match population shifts found by the latest U.S. Census. But Reeves took the unusual step of not making the Elections chair the Senate leader on redistricting. Instead, he gave that responsibility to Sen. Merle Flowers, a DeSoto County Republican.
While McDaniel might not be a favorite of Reeves, he has his supporters in the state Senate. According to a McDaniel news release, at least eight current members of the Senate are backing him against Cochran.
“I’ve known Chris for several years now and he has proven to be a conservative leader in the Mississippi State Senate,” said Sen. Tony Smith, R-Picayune. “He is what Mississippi and the United States need now.”
Range of issues
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 pass legislation 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 that ultimately passed.
The bonds he has voted for have run the gamut from economic development to agriculture projects, to state office and higher education construction to museums.
He sued to stop the Affordable Care Act, but did co-sponsor legislation in 2011 for the state to create its own health care exchange. At that time, most Mississippi Republicans favored establishing a state-run exchange.