Twenty-one Republican senators up for re-election in 2016 filed into the National Republican Senatorial Committee on the morning of Nov. 19 to meet with party strategists about campaign preparations.
Leading the confab with the incumbents and their chiefs of staff were incoming NRSC Chairman Roger Wicker, the Mississippi senator elected to the position a week earlier, and Ward Baker, the 2014 political director who was promoted to executive director for the new cycle. Unlike the past four NRSC administrations, this one is charged with defending a Senate majority.
Later that day, in his first newspaper interview since being elected chairman, Wicker spoke candidly about the challenges ahead. He declined to detail the meeting but said, “I guarantee you the issue of fundraising arose.” While Republicans are primed to net nine seats in 2014 with a win next month in Louisiana, the party faced two noteworthy hurdles in the midterms: a late organizational start and being significantly outraised by Democrats.
With Baker in place — about two months earlier than when Rob Collins took the helm of the committee in 2013 — Wicker already has avoided the first issue. Now, his goal is to overcome the financial disparity.
“It’s all about putting together a good staff and fundraising,” Wicker told CQ Roll Call. “And getting the right message, and more fundraising. And it all comes back, every other day, to fundraising — then spending it smart.” Wicker beat out Nevada Sen. Dean Heller for the chairmanship in a closed-door Nov. 13 GOP conference meeting. Six days later, seated behind his desk on the fifth floor of Dirksen, Wicker was confident in the party’s ability to hold a potential 54-seat majority, despite a map that puts the Senate in play for Democrats.
With limited offensive opportunities, Republicans are defending 24 seats in 2016, including seven in states President Barack Obama won twice. But Wicker, who said he's not expecting a single GOP retirement, was adamant that with a strong GOP presidential nominee, the party would be well-positioned to hold seats in swing states — Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Florida, New Hampshire and beyond.
“I’m not conceding the electoral votes from any of those states to a Democratic presidential nominee, much less a senator like the ones we have who have done a good job, have stayed in touch, worked across the aisle and have been stalwarts and stood up for their states,” he said. “I would feel good about those candidates in a presidential year or a midterm.”
The 63-year-old held his first job in the Capitol in 1967 as a page for Democratic Rep. Jamie L. Whitten. By the time of Whitten's retirement in 1994, he had become the longest serving member in House history — so long that Wicker successfully ran to succeed him, but as a Republican.
Wicker is one of more than two dozen House or Senate pages who went on to later serve in Congress. Retiring Rep. John D. Dingell, D-Mich., may be the only other one to replace the member who appointed him — in Dingell’s case, it was his father.
After receiving undergrad and law degrees from Ole Miss, Wicker joined the Air Force Judge Advocate General Corps. In 1980, he went back to Capitol Hill to serve as House Rules Committee counsel to Mississippi Republican Trent Lott. After a few years he returned to Tupelo, Miss., and in 1987 was elected to the state Senate — a race Wicker said cost him a grand total of $25,000, including for TV and radio ads.
He spent $750,000 to overcome a crowded field and replace the retiring Whitten in the Republican wave of 1994. Soon after, he was elected president of that massive freshman House class. In 2007, then-Gov. Haley Barbour appointed him to replace Lott in the Senate.
In the interview, Wicker said he would be reaching out for advice about his new role to the other chairmen of the GOP campaign committees and to former Virginia Rep. Tom Davis, who once chaired the National Republican Congressional Committee. But among his first bit of outreach before the leadership elections was to Lott.
“He called some time ago and wondered what I thought,” Lott told CQ Roll Call. “I said, ‘Golly, Roger, why would you want that job? It’s the toughest job in the Senate leadership.’ But he felt like he could do the job, and he asked if I had any advice. I said, ‘Well, do your whip work.’ And apparently he did.”
"I’ve known Roger since he was in college," Lott continued. "Roger has always done well in anything he’s done."
As Wicker noted, incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell often makes the final decisions at the NRSC. That includes naming Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio as vice chairman for finance last cycle. That structure could be repeated for 2016.
“While the chair of the NRSC was no doubt consulted, it was a motion that came straight from the leadership,” Wicker said. “So we’ll be visiting with the leader about co-chairs for areas of emphasis. And I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if an announcement is made early on.”
Wicker’s most prominent role in the midterms was on the stump for his endangered Mississippi colleague, Thad Cochran, for whom Wicker first door-knocked as a 21-year-old Ole Miss college student in 1972. This year, Wicker assisted Cochran in the primary and then helped lead an all-hands-on-deck effort that resulted in Cochran emerging victorious in the runoff.
“I was certainly happy to swing into action,” Wicker said. “I think we did the country a favor, and certainly the party a favor, because we got a good man back in office.”
With Republicans back in the majority and Cochran expected to reclaim the Appropriations gavel, Wicker said that will only help the Senate run more smoothly and ultimately help endangered Republicans in 2016.
“To look better than we have the last six years is a pretty low bar, but I think we’ll look far better,” Wicker said. “And I think that’s good politics.”
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