TUPELO • They weren’t quite born in the same hospital room, but it made a good story all the same, at least for a while.
Republicans Roger Wicker and Thad Cochran served together as Mississippi’s two U.S. senators for a little over a decade, from the very end of 2007 when Wicker took office until April 2018 when Cochran resigned his seat.
But it was not Washington that bound the two men together. The relationship between them goes back much further. It began, in a certain fashion, in a rural Northeast Mississippi town.
In a strange crossing of political and geographic paths, Wicker and Cochran were both born far from Mississippi’s centers of power in the small town of Pontotoc, Cochran in 1937 and Wicker in 1951.
This bit of biographical trivia made campaign fodder in 1994, when Wicker first ran for the House of Representatives.
Then a state senator from Tupelo, Wicker had the boon of Cochran’s support in the campaign.
“We went all over north Mississippi and had much fun relaying that we were from the same town,” Wicker said Thursday to the Daily Journal. “For weeks and weeks, we told everyone we were born in the same room.”
The truth ultimately came out.
“It turns out the Pontotoc clinic had actually moved from one end of the street to the other by the time I was born,” Wicker said. “So we weren’t even born in the same building.”
By now a well-burnished anecdote, Wicker relayed this story last year in remarks that commended Cochran upon the senior senator’s retirement.
An accident of birth would not blossom into a political pairing for some decades. Despite ongoing biographical parallels – including military service – Cochran and Wicker moved in largely distinct orbits during their formative years.
Cochran lived for a time in Tippah County while his parents, both teachers, worked at Blue Mountain College.
The family eventually moved to central Mississippi and Cochran graduated as valedictorian at Byram High School in 1955. The Jackson metro region would go on to launch Cochran into his first elected office.
Wicker established deeper roots in his native Northeast Mississippi, and made it the base of his political ascent, beginning in the state legislature in 1988.
It was, of course, nothing other than politics that brought the two men finally together.
“I campaigned door to door for 34-year-old Thad Cochran in 1972 when I was a student at Ole Miss and he was running for Congress for the first time,” Wicker said. “I have been a personal friend of his since that time.”
Cochran won that 1972 race, entering the House of Representatives that election cycle with Trent Lott as only the second and third Republicans from Mississippi in the U.S. House since Reconstruction.
Wicker, in turn, won his 1994 race to replace the long serving Democrat Rep. Jamie Whitten, continuing the GOP conquest of once solidly Democratic districts that Cochran helped begin.
Later in his career, Cochran fell under fire from factions of the Mississippi Republican Party that found him insufficiently conservative, too quick too compromise and too eager to spend money.
Wicker found himself the target of similar criticisms in early 2018. State Sen. Chris McDaniel nearly toppled Cochran in 2014 and briefly launched a primary challenge to Wicker in 2018.
On Thursday, Wicker continued to defend Cochran’s methods as both effective and consistent with Republican principles.
“He was a loyal and true conservative Republican who had the ability to reach across the aisle and get things done at the same time,” Wicker said. “That’s what people have to do if you want to accomplish anything in the U.S. Senate.”
Since Cochran’s resignation from the Senate, Wicker himself has assumed the title of Mississippi’s senior senator. Cindy Hyde-Smith replaced Cochran by gubernatorial appointment before winning the rest of Cochran’s term in a special election.
She entered a Washington far different from the one Cochran found in 1972. But Wicker believes that Cochran still offers a model for the would-be federal lawmaker.
“I think the effective, accomplishment-oriented senators model themselves after Thad Cochran and people like him,” Wicker said. “That sort of dynamic still is in play.”