Monday, December 24, 2012 12:00 AM
When South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint resigned from the U.S. Senate this month to serve as President of the Heritage Foundation - the nation's leading conservative think-tank - he created political ripples throughout the Palmetto State that will impact Mississippi's position in the Senate and elevate a new face in national Republican Party politics.
DeMint provided the Tea Party equivalent of an establishment endorsement to Republican candidates in primaries and elections across the country with a mixed record of electoral success. His vacancy gave South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley the opportunity to appoint another staunch conservative - Congressman Tim Scott - to the Senate.
A governor appoints a congressman to the Senate - all conservative Republicans - is not a national story. But for those questioning the inclusion and diversity of the Republican Party, there is more to the story. In the conservative South, the nation's first female Indian-American governor (Haley) appointed a black congressman (Scott) to become the only currently serving black U.S. Senator in the country from any party. Scott is the first black Republican senator from the South since Reconstruction and the first black Republican senator since Edward Brooke of Massachusetts left the chamber in 1979.
Scott previously defeated the son of former Sen. Strom Thurmond to win his congressional seat and represents the movement toward a new era in Southern Republican politics. A Tea Party favorite himself, Scott has demonstrated a conservative record, which Haley mentioned when making the appointment. "It is very important to me as a minority female that Congressman Scott earned this seat. He earned this seat for the results he has shown," she said.
One of the more politically entertaining side notes is the emerging contest for Scott's now vacant congressional seat. Former South Carolina governor and congressman Mark Sanford, who held the seat in the 1990s, is reported to be planning a political comeback by running in the special election. Sanford, a once prominent conservative leader with presidential aspirations careened his political career off a cliff in 2009 when his claimed weekend hike on the Appalachian Trail was revealed to have been actually a visit with his Argentinian mistress.
But in Mississippi, DeMint's resignation elevates Sen. Roger Wicker to second in Republican seniority on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. The committee's current ranking member, Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, did not seek reelection nor did the next in line, Olympia Snowe of Maine. DeMint was next in line and with him out, Sen. John Thune of South Dakota will head the committee for Republicans. Wicker, as number two, presumably has his pick of any of the subcommittees to run as the minority leader: aviation, telecom, trade, insurance, environment, science & space, or transportation. He already currently serves as ranking member of the transportation subcommittee but would likely give that up.
Wicker's decision could be influenced not only by policy, but also a mind toward one day serving as the full committee's ranking member or, under Republican control, as chairman. Thune held the top post on aviation as did Wicker's predecessor, Sen. Trent Lott. Were Wicker to choose the telecom subcommittee, he would be a leading decision maker in mobile communication and technology policy.
Mississippi's senior Sen. Thad Cochran also is doing the Senate committee shuffle. Republican conference rules created term limits for chairmanships and ranking member positions. Cochran's term as ranking member of Senate Appropriations has completed (although were Republicans to take control he could return as chairman of the committee). His seniority provides a path to serve as ranking member of the Agriculture Nutrition & Forestry Committee. But the current ranking member, Pat Roberts from Kansas, refuses to yield thus placing the future of Republican leadership on that committee in the hands of a Republican conference vote. Cochran has shown little desire to lead his other committee - Rules & Administration - off which his former colleague Lott served as chairman.
Following the recent death of Hawaii Sen. Dan Inouye (then chairman of appropriations and close friend to Cochran) and the defeat of Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar in the Republican Primary this year, Cochran is now the fourth most senior Sen. behind Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Max Baucus (D-MT). Hatch will not seek reelection in six years so if Cochran does and wins, he will be the most senior Republican Senator and under a GOP controlled Senate, the president pro tempore of the Senate and third in line to succession of the President of the United States. The earliest that would be happen under normal circumstances would be 2019.
With recent changes (electoral and otherwise), assuming the appointment and confirmation of Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry to U.S. Secretary of State, Wicker will move in seniority from the 70s our of 100 up to number 56 in 2013 overall, and number 26 among Republicans.
Brian Perry is a partner with Capstone Public Affairs, LLC. Reach him by e-mail at email@example.com.