Roger Wicker Waxes Optimistic About the Election

NRSC chairman says Senate races are going better than expected for GOP

Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker is sure to receive credit if the Republicans maintain control of the Senate this November. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker is sure to receive credit if the Republicans maintain control of the Senate this November. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted September 22, 2016 at 5:00am

The pressures of a blue state-heavy map, Donald Trump’s unconventional campaign, and “40 zillion” phone calls might have driven Roger Wicker to do something he hasn’t done since the 1970s.

Eat some Nutter Butters.

The chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee held a bag of the peanut-shaped cookies during a wide-ranging interview this week — the first time he’s had the snack in 40 years, he promised. The infusion of sugar and carbs was a necessary pick-me-up after the countless hours he’s spent dialing-for-dollars here, in his spacious office in the NRSC’s Washington headquarters, where Wicker estimates he’s made between “40 zillion” and “40.3 bazillion” phone calls since taking command of the group 22 months ago.

Not that the 65-year-old senator charged with protecting his party’s Senate majority is worried seven weeks before Election Day. Senate Republicans were always going to feel political pressure this year, but the longtime Mississippi lawmaker boasts that his races are going better than most in Washington expected.

“We’re in a good position, much better than people would have predicted at the outset,” he said, later adding that he feels “guardedly hopeful” about the outcomes.  

Most impartial analysts would agree. An anti-Republican wave started by Trump’s candidacy has yet to materialize. And in any case, polls show Republican senators consistently performing better than the GOP presidential nominee in key battlegrounds.

Keeping the Senate is far from assured, especially if Trump slips further behind Hillary Clinton. But if the 54-member Republican Conference does hold on in a year where seven of its incumbents are defending states President Barack Obama won twice, Wicker is sure to receive praise.

That would be a dream for the former House member, who says he started his campaign to become NRSC chairman on Election Day of 2014, when he called Mitch McConnell to announce his intention to run for the position. (McConnell, per Wicker, replied that he was busy and asked that they instead talk the next day.)

Wicker, who wore a tie decorated with tiny cotton plants, speaks in a Southern drawl and often takes long pauses while speaking. Unlike some in his line of work, he’s also far from cocky in public.  

Several nervous moments 

“I had several nervous moments this very morning,” he said, when asked if he felt nervous after the Democratic National Convention in July temporarily gave Clinton and Democrats a major bounce in the polls.

He felt that way, he said, because of all the “variables” facing Senate GOP campaigns.

“What’s the top of the ticket going to do to turnout? And how does that translate into where the top of the ticket targets, with the Clinton and Trump campaigns?” he said. “It’s just all a bunch of variables. And yeah, sometimes the butterflies just drive you crazy.”

The biggest variable Senate Republican must grapple with is Trump’s campaign, which party strategists have accused of running an insufficient voter-outreach program while neglecting to run TV ads in key battlegrounds. Many campaigns, like Ohio GOP Sen. Rob Portman’s, have instead built their own ground game (with help from the Republican National Committee), independent of the top-of-the-ticket’s efforts.

When pressed whether Trump’s ground game was as helpful to Senate Republicans as Mitt Romney’s was in 2012, Wicker said he didn’t think he was “qualified” to answer that question.

“I don’t know what Mitt Romney did four years ago,” he said. “I was running in a fairly modestly funded race for re-election in 2012.”

He said that he had been told that Trump’s outreach program had improved, before adding that “our ground game is better than his.”

Marquee races

He also discussed several other marquee Senate races.

In Missouri, Wicker said he always expected GOP Sen. Roy Blunt would face a difficult re-election but conceded that the Democratic nominee, Jason Kander, has talent — even if he’ll eventually lose because of his position on abortion rights and gun control. “We’ve known from the day they settled on Jason Kander that he’s young and attractive and that he was going to hire an excellent ad agency,” Wicker said. “So I’ll give him that.”

He defended North Carolina Sen. Richard M. Burr against criticism that he hasn’t worked hard enough during his own re-election campaign. “I’ve been a victim of this myself,” he said. “In 1994, there was this narrative that I won the primary and quit working. It just drove me crazy. And I had a hard time shaking it. I was working my fingers to the bone, exhausted by the end of every day. So I probably know how Richard feels.”

He declined to promise that the NRSC’s independent expenditure arm would run TV ads for Illinois Sen. Mark S. Kirk and Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, who are considered the two most vulnerable Senate Republican incumbents of this year’s election cycle. “We’re continuing to look at that,” Wicker said. (The senator did point out that the committee is helping Johnson and Kirk raise money.)

Even though Democrats have withdrawn most of their support from Ohio Democratic Senate nominee Ted Strickland, don’t expect the NRSC or Sen. Portman to start taking the race lightly. “Hillary Clinton wants that state,” Wicker said. “She’s going to try to turn out her vote there. There’s a lot of things that can happen. And so I am just not going to chalk that one up in the victory column until election night.”

Wicker also repeatedly declined to say whether two senators could run a co-chairmanship of the NRSC, as Sens. Thom Tillis and Cory Gardner are rumored to be considering.

“I’d rather not go there,” he said.

The lawmaker, who entered the Senate by appointment when Trent Lott resigned in 2007, describes the chairmanship as work. In addition to the phone calls, he’s visited 17 states to help raise money or give advice to Republican candidates.

“If you don’t feel pressure, then you’re not taking it seriously,” he said. “It is not bean-bag. It is for keeps.”

Pressure can be exhausting. Near the end of the interview, Wicker said he felt tired and reached for the now almost empty bag of Nutter Butters. Two of the cookies remained. 

He smiled.

“You wouldn’t print this, would you?”