Mississippi state senator Chris McDaniel is widely regarded as the Tea Party candidate with the best shot of knocking off an incumbent U.S. senator in a GOP primary this year. Incumbent Thad Cochran, 76, is well-known for his love of pork-barrel spending and could easily lose a race decided by conservative primary voters. But establishment Republicans are now sounding the alarm about the Tea Party challenger's temperament in light of newly-surfaced audio of McDaniel making impolitic remarks on a radio show he once hosted.
“If they pass reparations [for slavery], and my taxes are going up, I ain’t paying taxes,” McDaniel said during a radio broadcast seven years ago, according to an audio clip posted by the Wall Street Journal on Thursday. McDaniel also had a riff about "regrettably" having to learn Spanish if he moved south of the border: "You’ll have to learn just enough to ask where the bathroom is. Baños. Baños. That’s what you say.” When someone else in the studio mentioned the word "mamacita," McDaniel said: "I’m an English-speaking Anglo. I have no idea what it means, actually, but I’ve said it a few times, just for, you know, fun. And I think it basically means, 'Hey, hot mama.' Or, you know, 'You’re a fine looking young thing.'"
In a phone interview with THE WEEKLY STANDARD, McDaniel distanced himself from his past comments. Asked if he stood by his remark about not paying taxes if the government made payments to the descendants of slaves, McDaniel said: "No. Like most Americans, I'm gonna pay my taxes."
Given some of his racially-tinged remarks, how would he be able to reach out to African-American voters? "I reach out to them because they are fellow Mississippians. I love them," McDaniel told me. "They're my friends. They're my neighbors. They're who I went to school with. They're who I played basketball with. They're wonderful human beings." People shouldn't be treated as "racial collectives" but rather as "individuals," McDaniel said, adding: "I reject racism in all its forms."
McDaniel said that he was unable to comment on his "mamacita" remarks because he doesn't recall the context of the conversation. "I don't remember, it was almost ten years ago," McDaniel said. "I was a conservative talk radio host. We talked about dozens and dozens and dozens of issues."
Those dozens and dozens of radio broadcasts--a treasure trove of oppo research to be used against McDaniel and the Republican party writ large--strike fear into the hearts of Republicans in Washington. After McDaniel and I spoke, another audio clip was posted at Buzzfeed of him talking about the "boobies" of a Libertarian gubernatorial candidate in Alabama. In 2006, the candidate sold T-shirts juxtaposing a picture of her in a low-cut dress next to other candidates with the caption, "More of these BOOBS!! And Less Of these BOOBS!!"
"It's so interesting to see this woman, basically using her boobies—I shouldn't have said that—to using her breasts to run for office," McDaniel said on his radio show. "If that's not the most typical Libertarian platform I don't know what is. The only thing that could probably make the campaign more Libertarian is a heroin needle in her arm."
GOP consultant Brian Walsh, a former National Republican Senatorial Campaign staffer, says comments like these raise concerns that McDaniel could lose the general election. "Virtually no one thought we could lose Indiana last cycle either, but the reality is that candidates matter. And arguably McDaniel has the potential to be far worse than Richard Mourdock because he apparently has a long record, that's on tape mind you, of disparaging minorities, females, and who knows who else," Walsh said in an email. "That also has the potential to be a larger problem for the Republican Party when we have individuals like he, Todd Akin and others who unfortunately help define our party and turn off independent voters with their tone deaf rhetoric."
The notion that McDaniel could be used to tarnish other Republican candidates is fair enough, but there's an obvious rejoinder to the concern that McDaniel would lose the general election, and that is: C'mon, this is Mississippi we're talking about. The state is much more Republican than Indiana. If former Democratic governor Ronnie Musgrove couldn't win during the Obama wave of 2008, could any Democrat win in 2014? McDaniel's radio show comments that have surfaced to date--cringe-inducing but not utterly jaw-dropping--are not bad enough to bring him down.
"You certainly have to look at the Tea Party’s record and at least raise an eyebrow," elections analyst Sean Trende of Real Clear Politics told me in an email. "Insurgents have some often overlooked, important victories, but they have tended to come when highly experienced candidates like Marco Rubio (state house speaker) and Pat Toomey (former Rep) have run. McDaniel isn’t Christine O’Donnell, but the worry is he might be Sharron Angle. With THAT said, Mississippi isn’t Nevada, it’s solidly red now, and McDaniel would have to commit a pretty serious gaffe to lose, especially in a midtem electorate."
There's always the possibility that a truly Akin-esque statement could slip out of his mouth (Romney only fared 1 point better in Mississippi than Missouri in 2012), but during his phone conversation with THE WEEKLY STANDARD, McDaniel tried to allay fears that he's a loose cannon by not saying much of anything at all.
Asked if he thought there were grounds to impeach President Obama, McDaniel replied: "Oh goodness. That's a great question. The Constitution has a very high standard for impeachment, doesn't it? It's not something that should be discussed unless it's discussed very very seriously."
"That's not something I'd like to discuss," McDaniel said, until he examined it "more seriously."
McDaniel has also been criticized for speaking to the Sons of Confederate Veterans, but, again, let's remember that McDaniel is running in Mississippi. "We're talking about an organization that our governor is a member of, that in the past that our senators have been members of, that many members of our house and senate are members of," McDaniel said. "It's not a racist organization. It's a historical organization filled with reenactors and collectors. That's all it is." Thad Cochran has been known to wax nostalgic about Confederate veterans and has a portrait of Jefferson Davis hanging in his office.
McDaniel's case against Cochran rests largely on Cochran's love of earmarks (special spending projects that Republicans banned in 2011). Some of Cochran's biggest earmarks involved defense spending, but McDaniel doesn't think those projects count as earmarks. "No, not at all," McDaniel told me when asked if he considers military projects that Cochran brought to Mississippi to be earmarks. "We should have a strong military presence and that includes naturally the building of ships."
Cochran supporters have called McDaniel a hypocrite on earmarks and point to his support for giving $2 million to the Grammy Awards to build a museum in Mississippi. "It is absolutely within the prerogative of the state to build a museum for educational purposes," McDaniel said in defense of the project. "That museum was part of a larger bonding package that the state passed that included important infrastructure repair." And unlike the federal government, McDaniel said, "Mississippi is not $17.3 trillion dollars in debt" and "does not print its money."
Where McDaniel stands on foreign policy, a growing area of disagreement among conservatives, isn't all that clear. He wouldn't say whether he thought it was a mistake to depose Saddam Hussein: "Best way to look at it is this: to move forward and not speculate what I would have done at the time."
"My foreign policy would be much more prudent than the course we've taken over the last 30 or 40 years," he said. "To be a hyper-interventionist state at this stage in our history seems not to be a wise path."
Asked what the United States should do if it came down to a military strike on Iran or the Iranians getting a nuclear weapon, McDaniel replied: "I think Israel can handle that very effectively, and I would trust her to make the right decision in that regard."
Another potential source of controversy for McDaniel is his support for a "personhood amendment," which he proudly touts on his website. Mississippi voters are staunchly pro-life, but the measure was so controversial and counterproductive it was defeated 59 percent to 41 percent in a 2011 referendum. "The press was pushing a false narrative," McDaniel said of the amendment. He doesn't intend to renew a push for it: "I will respect the wishes of the people in respect to that. They've already spoken."
Asked if he supported any exceptions for anti-abortion laws, McDaniel did not directly answer the question. "It's very simple. My record speaks for itself. I'm pro-life. I'm a Southern Baptist. And I'm going to let my record speak for itself," he said. Asked again if he supported exceptions for rape, incest, or life of the mother, McDaniel replied: "You know, I've been fighting this fight for years. I'm going to let my record speak for itself in that regard. And it's a very clear record."
The personhood amendment didn't explicitly include any exceptions, but there's good evidence that supporting the amendment does not hurt candidates in Mississippi. As the 2011 Republican gubernatorial candidate, Phil Bryant co-chaired the campaign for the personhood amendment and said that if it failed, then "Satan wins." On the same day the personhood amendment lost, Bryant won his race by 22 points.
Whether the latest controversy regarding McDaniel's radio comments has any impact in Mississippi remains to be seen. A November survey from the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling showed Cochran leading McDaniel by just 6 points--44 percent to 38 percent. A poll conducted last week by the Republican firm Harper Polling shows Cochran up 17 points--52 percent to 35 percent. If neither candidate gets 50 percent of the vote in the June 3 primary, a runoff election will be held on June 24. Republicans inside the Beltway acknowledge that though McDaniel is trailing he has more intense supporters on his side.