Sen. Roger Wicker (R)
Elected: Appointed Dec. 2007, term expires 2012, 1st term.
Born: July 5, 1951, Pontotoc .
Education: U. of MS, B.A. 1973, J.D. 1975.
Family: Married (Gayle); 3 children.
Military career: Air Force, 1976–80; Air Force Reserve, 1980–2004.
Elected office: Tupelo city judge pro tem, 1986–87; MS Senate, 1987–94., U.S. Rep., 1995-2008.
Professional Career: Staff, U.S. House Rules Cmte., 1980–82; Practicing atty., 1982–94; Lee Cnty. public defender, 1984–87; Bd. of Visitors, U.S. Naval Academy, 2005.
Roger Wicker was appointed to the U.S. Senate in late 2007 by Republican Gov. Haley Barbour to fill the vacancy created by the resignation of Trent Lott, a powerful Mississippian who served at different times as both majority and minority leader of the Senate. Wicker, a Republican member of the U.S. House at the time of the appointment, went on to win election to the seat in November 2008.
|Roger Wicker (R)||683,409||(55%)||($6,160,116)|
|Ronnie Musgrove (D)||560,064||(45%)||($5,371,030)|
|Roger Wicker (R)||Unopposed|
Prior Winning Percentages: 2006 House (66%), 2004 House (79%), 2002 House (71%), 2000 House (70%), 1998 House (67%), 1996 House (68%), 1994 House (63%)
Wicker grew up in Pontotoc, the same north Mississippi town where his senior colleague in the Senate, Republican Thad Cochran, spent part of his childhood. Wicker’s father was a conservative Democrat, a state senator, and a circuit judge. He attended public schools and as a teenager became interested in Republican politics. From then on, his career was intertwined with the two more senior and well-established Mississippians, Lott and Cochran. He was a page in the House of Representatives and campaigned door to door for Cochran in his first race for Congress, in 1972. At Ole Miss, where both Lott and Cochran went to school, Wicker was associated student body president, and went on to get his law degree there. He then served for four years in the Air Force and remained in the Reserves until 2004. In 1980, he went to work for Lott on the House Rules Committee when Lott was still in the House. Wicker returned to Mississippi in 1982, set up a law practice, and was the county public defender in his wife’s hometown of Tupelo. In 1987, at age 36, he was elected to the state Senate, the first Republican elected in north Mississippi since Reconstruction. In the Legislature, Wicker helped draft the state’s strict abortion law and was also a leading advocate of government-sponsored vouchers for private-school tuition.
In 1994, longtime U.S. Rep. Jamie Whitten, a Democrat, momentously retired after becoming the longest-serving member of the House in history. His record of 53 years and 62 days was only recently broken by Michigan Democrat John Dingell in February 2009. The retirement of the powerful Whitten, the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, left large shoes to fill in Mississippi’s 1st District. Pent-up demand produced a crowded primary field in both major parties. Six Republicans, including Wicker, and three Democrats lined up to run.
Carrying his home base around Tupelo, Wicker led the GOP primary 27%-19% over Grant Fox, a young former aide to Cochran. In the runoff, Wicker campaigned as a conservative, but Fox hammered him for voting to override Republican Gov. Kirk Fordice’s veto of a sales tax increase. Wicker won, 53%-47%. Meanwhile, state Rep. Bill Wheeler, the Democratic nominee, had racked up support from African-Americans, labor unions, and teachers—an advantage in his party’s primary but not necessarily in the general election in the conservative 1st District. The result wasn’t even close. A district that had been held for five decades by a leading Democrat voted 63%-37% for the Republican, Wicker.
Wicker got off to a fast start in the House, elected president of the 73-member House freshman class, one of the largest in the 20th century and also one of the most historic. The incoming Republicans were by and large a feisty brand of conservatives who had nationalized the election of 1994, capitalized on public discontent with 40 years of Democratic control, and followed GOP firebrand Newt Gingrich to power. Wicker compiled a solidly conservative voting record. He got a seat on Appropriations—an unusual prize for a freshman. Appropriators tend to operate in an atmosphere of bipartisan cooperation, and while bitter fights between Republicans and Democrats flared on the floor of the House, Wicker worked quietly in subcommittees to get funding for the Natchez Trace Parkway, for Yalobusha River flood control, and for an interstate highway through DeSoto County. He delivered research dollars to Mississippi universities, and he worked with Lott, by then a senator, to attract defense technology firms to the state. Although north Mississippi was not badly hurt by Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, Wicker worked the House for Cochran as Cochran, the newly installed Senate Appropriations chairman, tried to direct federal aid to coastal Mississippi. Wicker’s job was to convince his conservative Republican colleagues in the House that the state faced a genuine emergency.
In January 2007, Wicker finally reached the top GOP position on a subcommittee, but with a change in party control from the Republicans to the Democrats, he became the ranking minority member, not chairman, of the Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies Subcommittee on Appropriations. He passed an amendment to place the words “In God We Trust” on the face of $1 presidential coins, and another to fund more legal representation for veterans claiming disability status. He sided with fellow appropriators and against conservatives in his party who tried to limit earmarked spending in recent years. For that, he earned the dubious distinction of No. 1 earmarker in the House by the watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste. His achievement was securing $176 million in projects, most of it for his district. “I am a fiscal conservative, and I believe in keeping spending low,” Wicker said in 2008, “but once the national budget is set, I think it is only fair to fight for our fair share for Mississippi.”
In November 2007, Lott surprised just about everyone by announcing that he would retire from the Senate before the end of the year, after serving 19 years there and 16 in the House. (He is the only member of Congress to have served as his party’s whip in both chambers.) Wicker was one of those vying for the seat. Others were 3rd district GOP Rep. Chip Pickering, who had already announced he wasn’t running for re-election in 2008, and Netscape founder and Mississippi native James Barksdale. On December 31, 2007, Barbour appointed Wicker and set the election for the remaining years of Lott’s term on November 4, 2008. Attorney General Jim Hood, a Democrat, argued that state law required a special election within 100 days of Lott’s resignation and filed a lawsuit against Barbour. It seemed apparent that Democrats might fare better in a special election than with the wider electorate in November, and in fact Democrat Travis Childers did win Wicker’s House seat—a district that had voted 62% for Republican President Bush in 2004—in the special election in May. Hood got a favorable verdict in a trial court on January 14, but on February 6, the state Supreme Court upheld Barbour 7-2.
Wicker took his seat in January, and got seats on the Armed Services, Veterans’ Affairs, and Commerce committees. He continued to support Bush on the war in Iraq and to oppose timetables for a troop withdrawal. He supported Northrop Grumman and Airbus in their struggle against Boeing to get the Air Force’s tanker contract. Airbus’s big assembly plant was planned for Mobile, Ala., near the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. He worked closely with Cochran, who had often been at odds with Lott, in backing local projects and co-sponsoring bills. (Citizens Against Government Waste labeled Cochran and Wicker No. 1 and No. 3 Senate earmarkers respectively for 2008) Wicker also worked with Democrats to protect Mississippi’s interests. With Democratic Rep. Gene Taylor, he pushed amendments allowing purchasers of federal flood insurance to add wind coverage to their policies, helpful to a hurricane-prone state. After Taylor got his bill passed in the House, Wicker tried to overcome resistance in the Senate from Banking Chairman Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, a state where many of the major insurers are headquartered. Wicker, Cochran, and the two Louisiana senators placed a hold on the flood insurance bill in March 2008. But they were eventually defeated, 74-19. Wicker also advanced a plan to allow those affected by the heavy hurricane season from 2004 to 2006 to take a onetime tax credit of up to $5,000 if their insurance premiums were increased by more than 100% over three years, and to take tax credits of up to $5,000 annually for hurricane mitigation home improvements.Wicker had been re-elected easily in the 1st District, but he spent his first year in the Senate facing a serious challenge in the upcoming November 2008 election. Mississippi Democrats had not seriously contested a Senate race in 20 years, but President Bush’s low poll ratings, enthusiasm among African-American voters for Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama, and Childers’s Democratic victory in winning Wicker’s old district gave both national and state Democrats reason to believe they might beat Wicker. He started the year little known outside his congressional district. The Democratic nominee was widely known: former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, who was defeated for re-election by Barbour in 2003 and had good poll ratings. It was a battle between old friends: Wicker and Musgrove had both been elected to the state Senate for the first time in 1987 and roomed together in an apartment in Jackson.
Musgrove started out on the attack. He criticized Wicker for his support of earmarks and called him a “poster child” for a moratorium on pork-barrel spending; he liked to single out funding for the National Mule and Meatpackers Museum in California. Musgrove also criticized him for opposing increases in the minimum wage. Wicker said, “The people of Mississippi are tired of politicians like Mr. Musgrove and their negative attacks, and I don’t think they’re going to stand for his brand of politics.” Musgrove even hinted at ethical misconduct, criticizing Wicker for securing a $6 million earmark, not sought by the Pentagon, for Aurora Flight Sciences to build unmanned aerial vehicles in north Mississippi, while company executives contributed $17,000 to his campaign and hired Wicker’s former chief of staff to lobby for the project. Wicker said the effort was all about bringing high-paying jobs to Mississippi.
The tables turned on Musgrove when he was the subject of negative publicity after the indictment of three executives of a Georgia company that defaulted on a state government guaranteed loan of $54 million. They had contributed $59,000 to Musgrove’s 2003 campaign. Wicker continued to make news on Katrina issues, notably his support of multi-peril insurance. He traveled extensively around the state, often with Cochran, who was up for re-election and was considered sure to win by a solid margin. Wicker outspent Musgrove, $6.2 million to $5.3 million. But the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, flush with funds and aware that October polls showed the race to be within the margin of error, pumped in more than enough money to compensate for Wicker’s advantage. Wicker won 55%-45%. Eighty-two percent of whites backed Wicker, 10% less than voted for Cochran, while 92% of blacks backed Musgrove.
Wicker comes up for re-election in 2012, a much less pressing date than he faced during 2008. In January 2009, he said he opposed further bills providing funding for endangered private firms. “I think Mississippians are properly skeptical about the bailout bills. And I have yet to see any positive effects come from those bills. I think my no vote is looking better and better,” he said after Congress approved twin bailouts for the financial and domestic auto industries. In February 2009 he opposed the Democrats’ economic stimulus bill, saying, “We need to slow this locomotive. The bill needs to be rebuilt from the bottom up.”