Wicker’s 2018 challengers will face a very different kind of opponent

Published 10:15 am Wednesday, April 26, 2017

By Sid Salter

Wicker’s 2018 challengers will face a very different kind of opponent

Much has been made of late of potential 2018 challengers to Mississippi’s junior Republican U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker of Tupelo.

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That traces back to the 2014 re-election campaign of the state’s senior U.S. senator, Thad Cochran. Despite the vast power of incumbency, Cochran faced the political battle of his life and barely survived a GOP primary challenger that saw him retain his seat by a bare by a mere 7,723 votes in a GOP second primary.

That 2014 race saw more than $22 million spent chasing a seat that most believed a year earlier would be a shoe-in for Cochran. Yet when the race was run, the contest between incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, GOP primary challenger state Sen. Chris McDaniel of Ellisville, and Democratic nominee former U.S. Rep. Travis Childers of Booneville, the pursuit of a Mississippi seat in the U.S. Senate has cost well over $22 million.

According to the nonpartisan website, the Mississippi Senate race attracted more than $10.47 million in combined official campaign committee fundraising by the candidates — with over $6.7 million spent for the Cochran campaign and over $3.18 million spent by the McDaniel campaign. The Childers campaign spent a reported $366,402.

But outside spending supporting the candidates accounted for another $2.21 million spent to benefit the Cochran campaign, $3.63 million to benefit the McDaniel campaign and $15,565 to benefit the Childers effort. Also, there was $3.79 million spent by outside groups opposing Cochran, $2.17 million spent by outside groups opposing McDaniel.

In the wake of the divisive 2014 Mississippi Republican U.S. Senate primary, politicos are still debating what it all means and what possible impacts that division might carry forward into Mississippi’s 2015 courthouse to statehouse general elections. The result was that the 2014 race had virtually no legs moving forward into 2015.

But the 2016 presidential election saw Donald Trump turn the Republican Party inside out as he dispatched a battalion of mainstream Republicans along with few who shared McDaniel’s leanings like Ted Cruz.

So, what of the discussions of a possible Wicker-McDaniel showdown in 2018?

Two things in particular will distinguish 2014 from 2018.

First, the likelihood of McDaniel attracting the unprecedented levels of outside spending in a 2018 race that he did in 2014 is very small. The country’s political landscape is very different today than it was in 2014.

Second, Wicker is simply a different kind of incumbent than is Sen. Thad Cochran. Cochran went from political novice to the U.S. House and from there to the U.S. Senate. He background was not formed in rough-and-tumble local politics.

Wicker has been involved in the close infighting of local political all of his life. Wicker is more combative by nature than Cochran. He rather enjoys a fight and he fights to win.

He learned about contested races in his father’s judicial races. But more to the point, Wicker learned as a state legislator from north Mississippi how the political process works. Wicker rarely ignores a direct challenge.

In short, it’s a fair assessment to note now that a 2018 challenger to Roger Wicker — who came out of the last election with the confidence and gratitude of the majority his Republican U.S. Senate colleagues — faces a far different path than did McDaniel against Cochran in 2014.

Wicker is at the top of his game in every aspect. It will be a very different campaign. But at this early juncture, Wicker can simply await the potential challengers and keep his powder dry while doing the job of representing Mississippi in the Senate.

Those differences aren’t likely to totally heal in a year’s time. But what will be vastly different is the simple fact that the $11.8 million in outside spending — some 53.5 percent of the total campaign finance pie in the U.S. Senate campaign — won’t be there. It’s highly unlikely that groups like Club for Growth and others are going to invest in statehouse campaigns in the manner that they did in a race for one of 100 U.S. Senate seats. The notion that these outside groups — those that embrace the Tea Party strategies and those that don’t — will take the same interest in Republican primary politics for statewide and legislative offices in 2015 that they did in the 2014 U.S. Senate race

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at sidsalter@sidsalter.com.