Wicker’s 2018 challengers will face a very different opponent

Published 10:42 pm Tuesday, April 25, 2017

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

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 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, pursuit of a Mississippi seat in the U.S. Senate had cost well over $22 million.

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According to a 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, and $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 have carried 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 a 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 2018 from 2014.

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. His background was not formed in rough-and-tumble local politics.

Wicker has been involved in the close infighting of local politics 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 of 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.

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