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SALTER: McConnell’s GOP Senate...

SALTER: McConnell’s GOP Senate leadership defense recalls 1996 all-Mississippi battle

By: Guest Editorial - November 23, 2022

Sid Salter

**Submission by Sid Salter**

The predicted Republican “red wave” was in reality less impressive, but it did give the GOP narrow control of the House while the outcome of the Georgia U.S. Senate race will determine whether the Democrats merely held serve on their narrow control of the Senate or slightly improved their situation.

The slimming of the predicted Republican red wave also produced a contested Senate GOP leadership contest between longtime Senate Republican leader U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Republican Senatorial Committee chair Sen. Rick Scott of Florida. Behind closed doors, McConnel dispatched Scott by a vote of 37-10 to retain his leadership position.

McConnell’s win was a reminder of a 1996 political tableau that unfolded in Mississippi. The Mississippi GOP met in Jackson and turned their selection of national convention delegates into both a celebration of Mississippi’s leadership of national Republican Party policies and politics.

With the Republican National Committee then led by Yazoo City’s Haley Barbour and with Kansas Sen. Bob Dole’s resignation from the Senate virtually guaranteeing that either Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott or Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran would succeed Dole as the Senate Majority Leader – and with two-term Gov. Fordice still in control of the state’s executive branch – that 1996 party gathering was perhaps the high water mark of the GOP in Mississippi up until that time.

Obviously, it would get better moving forward for Mississippi Republicans who now control both houses of the Mississippi Legislature, all eight statewide elected offices, and five of the six posts in the Mississippi congressional delegation.

In that 1996 Senate leadership fight, Lott easily defeated Cochran – with Lott benefitting from his reputation as being farther to the political right that the more cerebral and moderate Cochran. But Cochran’s skill set would continue to serve him well on Capitol Hill.

Lott famously once campaigned in a television ad on helping a wheelchair-bound girl get federal assistance from a federal program he had in truth voted against six times. Lott’s 35-year congressional career was wrapped up in that contradiction between his conservative political beliefs and Mississippi’s dependence on the largess of federal support for public health care and human services, defense jobs and crop subsidies.

Over the course of Lott’s career – from an aide to a Democratic congressman to a young GOP turk who supported Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal to later winning and then losing the Senate majority leader’s post – Lott attained heights of power never reached by any other Mississippian in Congress.

The late U.S. Sen. James O. Eastland became chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee and president pro tempore of the Senate prior to his retirement in 1978.

The late U.S. Sen. John Stennis served as chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee and had served as chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, prior to his retirement in 1988.

The late U.S. Rep. Jamie Whitten served as chair of the House Appropriations Committee and earned the title “the permanent secretary of Agriculture” during his tenure in Washington. For a time, Whitten and Stennis simultaneously held the post of House Appropriations Committee chair and Senate Appropriations Committee chair – effectively giving Mississippi absolute control of the nation’s purse strings.

The late Sen. Cochran served as chair of both the Senate Appropriations Committee and Senate Agriculture Committee as well. But none of them – not Eastland, not Stennis, not Cochran – rose to the level of raw political power on Capitol Hill that Lott attained.

In winning the Senate majority leader’s post in 1996, Lott became for a time one of the three most powerful men in the nation along with then-President Bill Clinton and then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

This brings us back to the greatest loss for Mississippi in the failure of the “red wave” in the U.S. Senate. Current U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Tupelo, would have been the next chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee had the GOP won control of the Senate. Still immensely powerful as the ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee, Wicker’s ascension to the chair of Armed Services would be a huge win for defense shipbuilding in his home state.

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Guest Editorial

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