An aerial view of the Mississippi State Capitol at dusk. (Canva)
BILOXI, Mississippi — A candidate’s concession speech usually reveals a lot about how a person will handle an election loss. They can use their words to graciously accept the will of voters or work to assure their supporters that despite the loss, there are better days ahead.
But when the Associated Press at 11:30 p.m. Tuesday declared that firebrand state Sen. Chris McDaniel had lost his bid for the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor, there was no one at McDaniel’s election night party to hear such a speech.
The uber-conservative state senator’s supporters had gone home, TV journalists had returned to their broadcast stations and the rock band who entertained guests earlier in the evening had broken its equipment down.
McDaniel, aided by more than $1 million in dark money spending by out-of-state groups, spent weeks attacking incumbent Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann for not being conservative enough for Mississippi Republican voters. By the time McDaniel’s election party had cleared Tuesday night, it was apparent that those very voters decisively disagreed.
It was an anticlimactic end for McDaniel’s fiery statewide campaign, but the effect of the evening was much more significant to Mississippi politics: For the first time since 2008, Mississippi’s far-right conservative movement had no clear leader. And to make matters worse for the group, Republican voters had soundly rejected its coordinated effort to grow in 2023.
For more than a decade, McDaniel worked hard to pull his fellow Republican elected officials farther to the right. In this endeavor, he was successful. He built and leveraged a sizable base of conservative voters who followed his lead and lived in the minds of establishment Republican elected officials. McDaniel might not have won a statewide election, but those GOP leaders long feared the effects of his political organization and ideology.
But on Tuesday night, after his third statewide loss in a row, McDaniel conceded his race against Hosemann and conceded much more. Appearing visibly tired and speaking with a clear tone of dejection, he suggested to reporters he would step away from public life and that it was time for a fresh face to carry his far-right wing of the Republican Party forward.
“I think it’s on life support,” McDaniel told Mississippi Today of the movement he’s led. “It doesn’t have to be me that brings it back. Anybody can that delivers the message well.”
But the movement suffered a much bigger blow Tuesday night than just McDaniel. Numerous representatives of far-right conservatives in Mississippi circulated an endorsement list on social media that included 11 candidates for statewide, regional commission, or legislative seats.
These candidates were all challenging Republicans who the faction deemed “not conservative enough.” As one leader wrote of the endorsements in an email the night before Election Day, “This election is Mississippi’s fight for conservative government. If the liberal Hosemann side of the Republican party wins tomorrow, I believe Mississippi will return to a Democrat controlled government within a few years.”
The warnings and coordination fell flat, to say the least. All but one of those endorsed candidates, listed below in bold, lost their primaries — and most by substantial vote margins.
- Chris McDaniel lost to incumbent Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann by 9 percentage points.
- Incumbent Southern District Public Service Commissioner Dane Maxwell lost to Nelson Carr by 8 points.
- Lauren Smith lost to incumbent state Sen. Chad McMahan for the Senate District 6 seat by 14 points.
- Ricky Caldwell lost to incumbent state Sen. Nicole Boyd for the Senate District 9 seat by 52 points.
- Alan Sibley lost to incumbent state Sen. Bart Williams for the Senate District 15 seat by 18 points.
- Walter Hopper lost to incumbent state Sen. Kevin Blackwell for the Senate District 19 seat by 18 points.
- Don Hartness lost to state Rep. Robin Robinson for the Senate District 42 seat, previously held by McDaniel, by 12 points.
- Jamey Goodkind lost to Kimberly Remak for the House District 7 seat by 5 points (provisional votes are still being counted as of Friday afternoon, and it’s possible Goodkind will face Remak in an Aug. 29 runoff).
- John Williams lost to W.I. Harris for the House District 28 seat by 34 points.
- Phil Harding lost to two candidates, Zachary Grady and Felix Gines, for the House District 115 seat after earning just 258 votes.
The only candidate on the endorsement list who won his primary was former state Rep. Chris Brown, who handily beat political newcomer Tanner Newman for the Northern District Public Service Commission seat.
Steven Utroska, the Mississippi director for the State Freedom Caucus Network which helped distribute the endorsement list, attended McDaniel’s party in Biloxi on Tuesday. While McDaniel was never a member of the Freedom Caucus, an organization of House members who support conservative policies, the Jones County senator is broadly respected by the members of the organization.
Utroska, in an interview with Mississippi Today in Biloxi, struck a somber tone when discussing the election results.
“It certainly seems like there’s a conservative vacuum, and we’re losing strong conservatives,” he said.
With McDaniel’s loss and the loss of his fellow far-right hopefuls, the future of the faction is unclear. Mississippi, of course, has no shortage of Republican officials, given the state GOP will continue to make up a supermajority of the legislative seats in both chambers of the state Capitol. But the faction McDaniel has led for the last decade now has no clear leader.
Election night results show that Republican state Sen. Kathy Chism of New Albany will be the only ultra-conservative and McDaniel ally to return to the state Senate in January. Several House Freedom Caucus members appear to have survived the primary election carnage, but there is no clear leader of the far-right conservative movement.
But the handful of ultraconservative members returning to the Capitol will have even less influence than they wielded in recent years.
Rep. Jason White is expected to become speaker of the House in January, and most Capitol observers predict he will continue the role of his predecessor, Philip Gunn, in appointing primarily mainstream conservatives to lead powerful committees and largely shutting out the right-wing crowd.
And if Hosemann defeats his Democratic opponent in the November election, the lieutenant governor will almost certainly wield his power to relegate the few members of the far-right faction to the back benches of the 52-member chamber, leaving them with little influence over policy.
Over the next four years in state government, the Freedom Caucus and like-minded lawmakers will have to start from scratch to chart out a new path for their faction and determine what their organization will look like in a new state government.
“I think in the next few months we’ll be reaching out to new members who have been elected to get to know them and their beliefs,” Utroska said. “And after that, we’ll just have to see where it goes.”
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