A Look at Mississippi

Posted February 13, 2004 at 6:05pm

There isn’t much difference politically between Mississippi and its neighbors in the deep South, Alabama and Georgia.

Voters recently turned an incumbent Democrat out of the governor’s mansion, Republicans have a firm grip on the federal offices and the state Legislature is still solidly Democratic.

[IMGCAP(1)] The state lost one seat during last cycle’s reapportionment, and therefore the Congressional delegation returned to the 108th Congress with one less Democrat. Then, last November, former Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour defeated then-Gov. Ronnie Musgrove (D) in a hard-fought battle.

And while competition on the Congressional level is expected to be sparse this year, Magnolia State politicos are already bracing for the next hot ticket race: an open-seat Senate contest in 2006.

There is wide speculation that Sen. Trent Lott (R) will not run for re-election next cycle. After being forced to relinquish his Majority Leader post in December 2002, Lott pledged to serve out the remainder of his term, and he has since said publicly that he hasn’t made up his mind about running again.

If there is an open-seat race, Rep. Chip Pickering is considered the leading Republican to succeed Lott, his former boss. Pickering is the son of 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Charles Pickering, who became a key player in the battle over judicial nominations after his appointment was held up by Senate Democrats. The elder Pickering received a recess appointment in January.

Aside from Lott’s likely support, the 40-year-old Congressman would also have the backing of the “Mississippi mafia,” the state’s GOP network headed by Barbour and Sen. Thad Cochran.

The name most often mentioned on the Democratic side when it comes to an open Senate race is that of former state Attorney General Michael Moore. Moore could also decide to sit the 2006 Senate race out and gamble on the possibility that Cochran, a five-term senior

Appropriator who is in line to take over the panel in 2005, decides not to run again in 2008.

If that happens, the Democratic bench is considered shallow at best. Although he has given no indication that he’s looking to make a political comeback, Musgrove could be the party’s next best hope for making the Senate race competitive.

Although Musgrove lost by a 53 percent to 46 percent margin, his performance in the race was overshadowed by Barbour’s ability to turn out a massive Republican vote.

“While public perception is that he really got beat bad, he really didn’t if you look at the numbers,” said one Republican familiar with state politics, noting that from a historical perspective he got more than enough votes to win a statewide contest. “Musgrove didn’t lose it. Barbour just won it.”

The potential for an open Senate race next cycle already has Republicans drooling over Pickering’s central Jackson-based 3rd district.

Topping the list of likely candidates being mentioned is state Auditor Phil Bryant, who until last year was the only statewide elected Republican.

“If he got into the race it would be hard to beat him,” said the Mississippi Republican.

Bryant hails from Rankin County, which includes the populous and very Republican Jackson suburbs.

Another big name who is believed to be eying the seat is Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck (R), who switched parties in 2002 and won a second term last year. Tuck, then still a Democrat, was very involved in drawing the new Congressional boundaries last cycle, and her effort to draw her home into the 3rd district did not go unnoticed.

“There’s always been speculation that she shaped it in part for her to run,” the Republican said.

Tuck’s involvement in the process infuriated Democrats in the state Legislature, who were trying to draw a more competitive district in anticipation of a Member-versus-Member contest between Pickering and then-Rep. Ronnie Shows (D). Shows went on to lose by 29 points, after a court upheld the district lines that heavily favored the GOP.

Another possible GOP candidate in the 3rd is Nick Walters, who is currently the U.S. Agriculture Department’s rural development director for the state and is a one-time aide to former Gov. Kirk Fordice (R).

On the Democratic side, Shows is considered likely the only candidate who might be able to compete for the seat. When there was talk in 2003 about Pickering resigning his seat in order to take a top trade association job, Shows said he was considering running.

Another rising star who is mentioned for future statewide office is Michael Callahan (D), the southern district public service commissioner.

There has been talk that Callahan may switch parties, and if he did run statewide, it is more likely he would run as a Republican. Callahan switched parties once in order to run against an incumbent commissioner, and he no doubt carries some party loyalty baggage.

Still, state politicos recognize that he has three key ingredients for a statewide race.

“He’s young, good looking and able to raise a lot of money,” the Mississippi Republican source said.

Looking at the other districts in the state, Republicans always keep one eye on Rep. Gene Taylor’s southern Gulf Coast 4th district.

Taylor won 79 percent in the then-5th district in 2000, even as George W. Bush was beating Al Gore there 65 percent to 33 percent. Democrats privately admit there is little hope of holding the seat once Taylor vacates it.

Among the Republicans who would look at tossing their hats into an open 4th district race are Dave Dennis, Dennis Dollar and state Rep. Mark Formby.

Dennis, a wealthy contractor who currently sits on the board of governors of the Federal Reserve’s New Orleans branch, considered running for governor in 2003 but ultimately decided against a primary challenge to Barbour.

Dollar, meanwhile, gave Taylor the closest race of his Congressional career, taking 40 percent against the incumbent in 1996. The former state legislator is now chairman of the Federal Credit Agency in Washington, D.C.

Formby has been recruited by the National Republican Congressional Committee to run against Taylor in the past, but he isn’t likely to make a run until the seat opens.

Elsewhere in the state, Reps. Roger Wicker (R) and Bennie Thompson (D) appear to be set in their respective 1st and 2nd district seats. Wicker is in line to become an Appropriations cardinal in the next few years.

Thompson’s re-election margin dipped in 2002. He won 55 percent of the vote, his lowest percentage since 1994. Still, the majority black Delta district is solidly Democratic, and he should be fine through the next round of redistricting.