Chris McDaniel says President Donald Trump is a prisoner of the Republican political establishment.
And Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith is hammering McDaniel over it.
That’s dangerous political territory for McDaniel, because Trump is exceedingly popular with Republicans.
Hyde-Smith and McDaniel are in a tense battle for Republican votes in Mississippi’s U.S. Senate race. McDaniel has asserted that Trump was pressured to endorse her by the Republican Party establishment, notably Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky.
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
“He endorsed me three times in 2014, so far he’s only endorsed her once,” McDaniel, a firebrand conservative state senator who narrowly lost to Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Mississippi, in 2014, said of Trump in an interview Friday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” “It appears there is something is in play, it appears the establishment has a game in play there.”
McDaniel later told McClatchy that Trump “endorsed (the late Sen.) John McCain and (House Speaker) Paul Ryan for the same reasons. Our goal is to make sure that Donald Trump is his own man, and never has to cut these deals with Mitch McConnell again.”
A White House source familiar with the president’s thinking bristled at McDaniel’s assessment Friday afternoon, calling it “insulting.”
“The president makes his own decisions and it’s insulting and unhelpful for anyone to claim otherwise,” the source said. “Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith earned his trust and support, and the president is confident the people of Mississippi will make the right decision in November.”
McDaniel tried to offer Trump some praise.
“Trump is strong,” McDaniel said on MSNBC. “But he also needs 51 votes in the Senate. He’s trying to do the best he can to govern with a slim majority in the Senate.
“But ultimately,” McDaniel added, “he’s going to be much more pleased with conservatives that will actually fight for a living as opposed to those who will lay down and take shots.”
Melissa Scallan, a spokeswoman for Hyde-Smith’s campaign, said “Chris McDaniel has done nothing but insult the president in the last two weeks.
“First he said the president was manipulated into endorsing Cindy Hyde-Smith, then he said Donald Trump was forced into it,” said added.
McDaniel, in an interview with McClatchy last month, suggested that Trump was pressured in to endorsing Hyde-Smith, a former Democrat, by McConnell.
“The people of Mississippi understand that President Trump occasionally has to cut deals by Mitch McConnell,” he said. “How else can you explain that he endorsed Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan and John McCain? These are individuals who are hostile toward a President Trump, yet President Trump endorsed them.”
He repeated similar lines at a town hall Thursday in Oxford, Miss. Hyde-Smith’s campaign called McDaniel’s comments insulting to Trump, who endorsed McDaniel’s 2014 Senate run.
McDaniel didn’t back down from his remarks on Friday.
“To anyone that says that President Trump isn’t being pressured by the swamp to cut deals with Mitch McConnell, I would ask them point blank to kindly explain why he would have endorsed his arch enemy, Mitt Romney,” McDaniel told McClatchy in an email Friday afternoon. “Mitt Romney called Donald Trump every name in the book, and yet when it came time for Romney to run for Senate, Donald Trump endorsed him.”
Scallan said McDaniel is having “a difficult time accepting” that he didn’t get Trump’s backing.
“He is clearly in a state of denial, but I don’t know anyone who thinks the president can be forced to endorse anyone,” Scallan said Thursday.
McDaniel, Hyde-Smith, and Democrat Mike Espy are running in a Nov. 6 special election to replace Cochran, who retired from the Senate in April citing health reasons.
Hyde-Smith, Mississippi’s former agriculture commissioner, was appointed by Republican Gov. Phil Bryant, to fill Cochran’s seat until the election.
If none of the candidates get over 50 percent of the vote in the so-called “jungle” election, the top two finishers will face each other in a Nov. 27 runoff.