SOUTHAVEN, Mississippi–He’s endorsed his colleague Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS)’s (R-MS) re-election campaign. But addressing a crowd of 100 Republicans here Tuesday, Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS) urged party unity, no matter who wins the bitter Senate primary.
“I think we need to be unified after the primary,” Wicker said in a brief interview when asked if the unity message applies to a victory for Cochran’s primary challenger, state senator Chris McDaniel, too.
“I would have supported my opponents in 1994. I think we’re all going to join together on behalf of the Republican nominee. I hope that Republican nominee is Sen. Thad Cochran but we’re going to join together on behalf of whoever is the nominee,” he added.
In a speech to the DeSoto County Republican Club here at the Southaven Public Library, Wicker told three separate stories of the GOP unifying after a brutal primary: for his own House seat in 1994, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY)’s victory in Kentucky in 2010, and Gerald Ford’s 1976 victory over Ronald Reagan.
“I want to tell you a story–three stories,” Wicker told the group of about 100 Republicans–split down the middle between McDaniel and Cochran supporters. “That primary’s going to be over and we’re going to have to pull together as Republicans, Mississippians. We’ve done it before.”
His first story, which was about his own House primary back in 1994, Wicker said, “there were six of us running and then there was a runoff.”
“A runoff is the worst thing–you’re running against your fellow Republican,” Wicker remarked. “It’s just a terrible three weeks. It was for me. I ran against a gentleman named Grant Fox–a hard-charging young lawyer who had been on Thad Cochran’s staff.”
Wicker said his runoff against Fox was bitter.
“You know what? He said some things that I took offense at,” Wicker said. “And I said some things that he felt were completely beyond the scope of [what was fair]. We fought.”
Wicker won by small margin.
“Somehow or another, I ended up beating him with a vast 53 percent of the vote,” he joked, to loud applause from the room.
“I had already made up my mind: If I had lost that race, I was going to get in my car and head to Houston, MS, and endorse him that night,” Wicker continued. “As it was, the shoe was on the other foot. Fox called me and was very nice and said: ‘I’m going to support the nominee of my party. I’m going to help you.’ A few days later, Grant Fox took me around the square in Houston, MS, and vouched for me in every storefront and to every supporter of his. He was a champion and I’ll never forget it even though there still were some things that had bothered us about that campaign. That happens. It’s happening. But we pulled together and we won that race for America.”
Wicker’s seat was a pickup for Republicans that year, helping deliver the House to Newt Gingrich so he could become Speaker. He beat 22-year incumbent Democrat Rep. Jamie Whitten.
“We had the first Republican Speaker ever in 40 years and we passed welfare reform, repealing an entitlement for the first time in history,” Wicker said.
Wicker’s second example of GOP unity was when then-President Ford–who took the White House after a series of resignations, Spiro Agnew first then Richard Nixon, pushed him into the oval office from the House of Representatives–worked with Reagan in 1976 after Ford beat Reagan for the nomination.
“Do you remember 1976?” Wicker asked the room. “Most people don’t because you’re all so young. In 1976, we had a president–Gerald R. Ford–right after Watergate, it was a terrible time. Ronald Reagan decided to challenge him.”
Wicker noted how bloody the battle for the GOP nomination was that year. Interestingly, Cochran backed Ford, and Mississippi’s delegates delivered the nomination to Ford over Reagan. “It came down to the convention,” Wicker said. “Remember that? It came down to the convention–and it’s hard to beat an incumbent president. Well, Ford was nominated. And he was up there to make his acceptance speech and he said, ‘Ronald: come on down, come on down. This crowd wants to hear you one more time.’ Reagan came down and he made a speech and was a gentleman in every sense of the word. We didn’t win that year, but four years later we nominated Ronald Reagan–one of the best presidents ever.”
Wicker’s third story of GOP unity is much more recent. In 2010, he said that Senate Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) “asked me if I would send a PAC check to a friend of his.”
Wicker is referring to Trey Grayson, the McConnell-backed candidate in Kentucky’s 2010 GOP primary. “Mitch McConnell was supporting this guy [Grayson] and here comes a young fellow, an ophthalmologist out of the clear blue named Rand Paul,” Wicker said. “He won the nomination over Mitch McConnell’s pick. I talked to Mitch McConnell during that day, and McConnell said, ‘Rand Paul’s going to win and he’s going to be a good senator and he knows how to win and I’m going to support him.’ He did, and we won that race. And I like Rand Paul–and you know what he did? This year, he stood by Mitch McConnell because he knows the next Majority Leader of the United States Senate needs to be Mitch McConnell. We need to make Mitch McConnell the offensive coordinator, not longer the defensive coordinator.”
Earlier in his speech to the room, Wicker said he is “enthusiastically supporting” Cochran because he is the “conservative” candidate in the race. Wicker touted Cochran’s NRA and National Right to Life Committee endorsements. But Wicker did not take any shots at McDaniel. In fact, he never even said McDaniel’s name. Wicker also touted Cochran’s seniority in the U.S. Senate and said he’d expect Cochran to be chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee again if he wins. Wicker said such a position would allow Cochran to ensure certain things important to Mississippi are funded, and things that would hurt Mississippi are not funded.
Asked afterward why he didn’t mention McDaniel during his remarks, Wicker told Breitbart News he “just wanted to stick to my positive points tonight about Sen. Cochran’s record.”