Wicker faces low-budget challengers in Senate race

By Emily Wagster Pettus/The Associated Press

JACKSON — U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker shows the confidence of a man who will barely need to break a sweat in his run for re-election in Mississippi this year.

The Republican from Tupelo is sitting on a $2 million campaign fund. His Democratic opponent is Albert Gore — a retired minister from Starkville who’s running a low-key campaign — not the former vice president from Tennessee.

Wicker, 60, served six years in the Mississippi Senate and 13 years in the U.S. House. He has been in the Senate since 2007, when then-Gov. Haley Barbour appointed him after fellow Republican Trent Lott retired. The appointment lasted only a few months, and Wicker defeated Democratic former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove in a November 2008 special election to fill the final four years of the term Lott started.

Now, as he seeks a full six-year term, Wicker is traveling the state and connecting with constituents. During the past several days, he attended the commissioning of the submarine USS Mississippi in Pascagoula, spoke to teenagers at American Legion Boys State in Hattiesburg and appeared at a Republican Party news conference in Jackson, where he helped welcome two sheriffs and five other local officials as they switched to the GOP.

Wicker, like many incumbents, frequently criticizes federal spending even as he works to bring millions of federal dollars to his home state. He says the federal deficit is a huge problem, but he opposes tax increases.

“If you look at the industrialized nations of the world, the ones that we compete against for job creation, we have the worst tax structure for job creation of any of those nations that we compete with,” Wicker said this past week in Jackson. “We were second-worst and then Japan sort of jiggered their tax code a little a couple of months ago and lowered their taxes on job creators. So now we’re the hardest nation in the world on job creators.

“Why would we want to make it tougher to get out of this recession by raising taxes on Americans, when really, I think it’s clear to me, we have a spending problem.”

Gore is 82 and he notes “in good health,” is retired from two jobs, as a United Methodist minister and military chaplain. He said in a phone interview from his home that the only money he’s spending so far is for gasoline to drive to places like Lumberton, Picayune, Hattiesburg and Biloxi, where he speaks to potential voters.

“I believe that there are several things that need to be retained in our society such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and that we need to work on the problems we have with poverty, work on the other health problems we have associated with that, which means diabetes, overweight, so forth,” Gore said. “I think that the government does have a good role to play because you’ve got to cover 50 states, not just one.”

No campaign finance reports have been filed by Gore or the other two U.S. Senate candidates who’ll be on the Nov. 6 ballot in Mississippi. The Constitution Party’s Thomas Cramer of Vancleave, who’s retired from the Navy, says on his website that he’s running for Senate because he believes Wicker has failed to stand up for the U.S. Constitution. The Reform Party’s Shawn O’Hara of Hattiesburg has run unsuccessfully for a long list of offices, including governor, over the past two decades.

As for Wicker’s $2 million campaign fund, Gore said: “It doesn’t bother me. Let him spend it.”

Mississippi has a history of sending people to Washington for long careers in the Senate. The state’s other current senator, Republican Thad Cochran, was first elected in 1978. Lott stayed 19 years. Their predecessors, Democrats James O. Eastland and John C. Stennis, were in office for decades.

Political scientist Marty Wiseman, who directs the Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University, said unseating Wicker “is as close to impossible as it can get.”

“He is over in the far right, as far as being conservative. And he has created a record that reflects it,” Wiseman said. “It’s real hard for us to bring an incumbent home from Washington. With all of that going for him, he’s coasting.”

During an interview last week in Jackson, Wicker talked more about the presidential campaign than his own. He said he believes most voters will consider their pocketbooks this fall, and he hopes that propels Republican Mitt Romney past Democratic President Barack Obama.

“I think the principal issue is the economy,” Wicker said. “It’s the inability of the people to get a job and the inability of people to get a meaningful job.”

Wicker did not endorse anyone in the Republican presidential primary and he won’t say who got his vote, which he cast by absentee ballot. He will be a Romney delegate to the Republican National Convention this summer.

“I’m very much for Romney,” Wicker said. “I think he is the right choice and has just the kind of record to bring some sense to this economy and some sense to this bloated, overspending federal government.”