SALTER: McConnell’s GOP Senate leadership defense remembers 1996 Battle of Mississippi | Mississippi News

Studio portrait of Sid Salter. (Photo by Beth Wynn / © Mississippi State University)

**Contributed by Sid Salter**

The predicted Republican “red wave” was less impressive in reality, but it gave the GOP tight control of the House of Representatives, while the outcome of the US Senate race in Georgia will determine whether the Democrats lose only their narrow control of the Senate keep the Senate or improve their situation only slightly.

The waning of the predicted Republican red wave also prompted a contentious GOP Senate leadership contest between longtime Senate Republican leader U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Senate Republican Committee Chairman Sen. Rick Scott of Florida. Behind closed doors, McConnel sent Scott by a vote of 37 to 10 to retain his leadership position.

McConnell’s victory was a reminder of a 1996 political tableau that played out in Mississippi. The Mississippi GOP met in Jackson and turned their selection of national congressional delegates into a celebration of Mississippi’s leadership in national politics and Republican Party politics.

With the Republican National Committee then chaired by Yazoo City’s Haley Barbour, and the resignation of Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas from the Senate, virtually guaranteeing that either Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi or Thad Cochran of Mississippi would elect Dole as the majority leader of the Senate would follow — and with two incumbent Governor Fordice still in control of the state’s executive branch — this 1996 convention was perhaps the pinnacle of the Mississippi GOP up to that point.

Obviously, things would be better off for Mississippi Republicans, who now control both houses of the Mississippi legislature, all eight state elected offices, and five of the six posts in the Mississippi congressional delegation.

In that battle for Senate leadership in 1996, Lott easily defeated Cochran – Lott capitalizing on his reputation for being more right-wing politically than the more cerebral and moderate Cochran. But Cochran’s skills would continue to serve him well on Capitol Hill.

Lott famously once campaigned in a television ad to help a wheelchair-bound girl receive federal assistance from a federal program he had in fact voted against six times. Lott’s 35-year congressional career has been mired in this contradiction between his conservative political beliefs and Mississippi’s reliance on extensive state support for public health and human services, defense jobs, and crop subsidies.

Throughout Lott’s career – from an aide to a Democratic congressman to a young GOP Turk who supported Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal only to later win and then lose the post of Senate Majority Leader – Lott achieved Levels of power unmatched by any other Mississippi in Congress.

The late US Senator James O. Eastland became chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, senior member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, and was Senate pro tempore President before his retirement in 1978.

The late US Senator John Stennis served as Chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee and was Chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee before retiring in 1988.

The late US Representative Jamie Whitten served as Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and earned the title of “the Permanent Secretary of Agriculture” during his tenure in Washington. For a time, Whitten and Stennis co-chaired the House Appropriations Committee and the Senate Appropriations Committee — effectively giving Mississippi absolute control of the nation’s purse strings.

The late Senator Cochran also served as chairman of both the Senate Appropriations Committee and the Senate Agriculture Committee. But none of them — not Eastland, not Stennis, not Cochran — reached the level of raw political power on Capitol Hill that Lott reached.

When he won the post of Senate Majority Leader in 1996, Lott at one point became one of the three most powerful men in the nation, along with then-President Bill Clinton and then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Which brings us back to Mississippi’s biggest loss in the failure of the US Senate “red wave”. Current US Senator Roger Wicker, R-Tupelo, would have been the next chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee if the GOP had gained control of the Senate. Still immensely powerful as the senior member of the Senate Commerce Committee, Wicker’s rise to chairman of the armed forces would be a major asset to defense shipbuilding in his home state.

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