Over the last decade or so, I’ve gotten to know Chris McDaniel pretty well, professionally and socially. We’ve been together in laid-back, family situations and at red-meat, Confederate flag-waving rallies. He’s the same guy, either way.
Though I agree with him on most issues, politics aren’t even a factor in my regard for him as a man. If he were a tree-hugging, skinny jeans-wearing commie or the fire-breathing, heartless conservative wacko that most of the media portrays him to be, it wouldn’t matter to me.
He’s just a good guy who gets a bad rap from the people on the gravy train that he’s trying to derail. That’s what he fought so hard to do in 2014, and he did it the right way — despite some reports to the contrary — and he rode a groundswell of grassroots support to win the Republican vote.
During the campaign, he knew that the odds and entities were against him. But he worked hard and brought his message of returning the Republican party to its core values of conservatism. And while he was talking about his values, his opponent’s people were compromising theirs, buying the votes of lifelong Democrats and making deals that were so dark, they had to slip out of the back room and into the back alley.
Chris knew what was going on. Still, he didn’t resort to underhanded tactics, unethical or illegal. He stayed above board, in message and in deed. All he wanted to do was debate Sen. Thad Cochran, then let the people vote their conscience, based on ideals and principles. That’s it.
In any campaign, there are people and groups on the fringes who want to latch on, even though the candidate would rather they not tell anyone or put signs in their yard or on their vehicle. That’s the case with all political parties and wings within them, but it’s especially prevalent with challengers. The mere presence of certain supporters is a liability, but no candidate wants to turn away an entire voting bloc … as long as they’re quiet about it!
Chris was always the consummate gentleman and more patient than I could ever be, even with the ones who only wanted to gripe or monopolize his time while a line of people waited to greet him. Even the tin-foil-hat-wearers who wanted to talk about every issue from “the real cause of the War of Northern Aggression” to contrails and the real perpetrators of 9/11 … Chris was civil and patient with them all. Still is.
He was even cordial to a Wicker campaign spy who came to our office, video camera in hand, to record every move he made and every word he said during a book-signing at our office last month. It’s like that everywhere he goes, and he handles it in stride.
But there was one night at his house a couple of years ago that I saw Chris quickly disassociate himself from someone. The man was from out of town. He said he was with the national Libertarian Party. He was a friend of a friend at a gathering of about 10 of us. I don’t remember his name or who he came there with …
I could find out, but I don’t want to explain why I’m asking. Chris probably wouldn’t want me to write anything about it. Though he’s never asked me to write — or not write — anything, there’s always been an unspoken rule that social stuff stays social. I’m only reporting if I have my notebook out and it’s clear that the meeting is business. Otherwise, everything is off the record.
Not that there’s been anything to hide, mind you. I’ve never witnessed lampshade-on-the-head naked dances to the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack or anything like that. But Chris has been plainspoken about politicians and issues while wearing a backward baseball cap and puffing on a Montecristo, just being one of the guys, so I know he’s comfortable around me. He busts chops with his old buddies. Their time together is an important reminder that politics and social media aren’t everything. Hell, they aren’t even the real world.
OK, after all of that buildup — and going back and forth in my mind about whether I should break our code and reveal what I witnessed that night — back to my story.
This visitor was trying to get Chris to switch to the Libertarian Party and run for Rep. Steven Palazzo’s seat. That’s something a lot of people were asking Chris to do at the time, only as a Republican.
But then the man started pitching Chris about what he could offer to his campaign. The man told Chris that he had access to technology that would “hack into people’s Facebook accounts” — and I distinctly remember this guy using the word “hack” — and use their information to target potential like-minded voters.
I don’t remember any details about it. In fact, I don’t remember the conversation reaching that stage. I do, however, remember Chris chuckling and saying, “I don’t want any part of that” and changing the subject.
I also remember how odd it seemed that a Libertarian, who is supposed to be anti-government intrusion and anti-corporate overreach and all about citizens’ privacy rights, was pitching this kind of technology to a Libertarian-leaning candidate.
It’s all sort of surreal now, recalling that interaction and seeing the huge national scandal that’s being made of Cambridge Analytica, the backlash against Facebook and the awakening of its users about the way private information is being mined by companies and campaigns.
And now I’m breaching the rules of data I obtained legally during a social occasion but didn’t get permission to use for publication.
I just think it’s important for people to know what I saw and heard that night. It says a lot about the kind of man Chris is. Even though he was done wrong, he refused to do wrong.
Mark Thornton is chief of the Laurel Leader-Call. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.