The Big Muddy

Mississippi Senate Picture as Clouded as the River

Posted December 3, 2007 at 6:32pm

While Sen. Trent Lott’s (R-Miss.) surprise retirement announcement last week immediately set off a furious race for his leadership post, the race for Lott’s Senate seat has been slower to develop.

That’s because the timing of Lott’s decision has created a unique set of circumstances in which Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) has the power to essentially pick the Republican candidate for the open special election, now scheduled for November 2008.

At the same time, Democrats’ immediate reaction has been to question the legality of Barbour’s special election plan and also to prepare for an election battle by trying to figure out which candidate could best steal a Senate seat in a very conservative state.

Barbour has said that once Lott’s resignation takes effect he will schedule a special election to be held on Nov. 4, the same day as the state and national general election. Barbour said he would appoint “the best qualified person who can do the most for our state and country” to the position in the interim.

Because it’s highly doubtful that Barbour will simply appoint a placeholder to the post until November, the interim appointee will essentially get 11 months as the incumbent to campaign for the November special election and another four years in the Senate (which would finish out Lott’s current term). It’s expected that the Mississippi Republican establishment will fully support whomever the governor picks.

The names floated by Republican state and national party insiders on Monday had not changed much since Lott announced his plan to retire last week. In fact, the list is headed by the same two names that were floated in early November when rumors abounded that Sen. Thad Cochran (R) would not seek re-election in 2008.

Mississippi Reps. Roger Wicker and Chip Pickering are the two most likely Republicans being considered for the appointment.

Although Pickering said earlier this year that he planned to retire from the House at the end of the 110th Congress to spend more time with his family, he has in the past made it clear that his goal is to one day serve in the Senate. And being asked by Barbour to fill the seat might be a graceful way for Pickering to reverse course on his retirement decision.

Meanwhile, Wicker’s entry into the race would have created another open Republican seat in the House. But if Barbour is concerned about a Democratic challenge for the Senate seat in the special election, Wicker’s record of sweeping victories in his Northern Mississippi district, which is considered a swing area for statewide elections, could serve as an attractive asset.

But Wicker also is an established Member on the powerful House Appropriations Committee, and one Mississippi Republican operative said Barbour also is likely weighing those seniority issues in his decision.

“This is solely in the hands of Gov. Barbour,” the operative said. “The biggest problem with appointing Wicker is his seniority on the Appropriations Committee and what that has meant to the state of Mississippi.”

In a weekly column that appears in several state newspapers, Lott last week offered his advice in the selection process.

“Smaller states like Mississippi need strong Senators,” Lott said. “With that said, there are two paths to power in the Senate — through leadership positions or through decades of seniority. For generations Mississippians have understood this, and we’ve followed kind of an unwritten formula whereby as one Senator had seniority, the other was building it. We’d be wise to continue that. With Senator Cochran well positioned with seniority, our new Senator should be someone who is young, capable of staying in the Senate and pursuing either of those two paths to Senate influence.”

Pickering, who is just 44 years old and a close political ally of Lott, would certainly fit that mold. But so, too, could state Treasurer Tate Reeves (R), who at age 33 is considered a rising star in the party and just won re-election in November. Reeves, is an outside possibility for the job but he could be a way for Barbour to avoid choosing between Wicker and Pickering.

The special election to replace Lott also will not be conducted like a typical contest because rather than holding traditional party primaries followed by a general election contest between the Democratic and Republican nominees, all candidates who run will compete in a special open primary election. The top two vote-getters from that contest will proceed to a runoff unless the winner of the special garners 50 percent, plus one, of the total vote.

Therefore, splitting the Democratic vote with more than one top-tier candidate almost certainly would ensure a Republican victory in November and that’s why Democrats are in midst of trying to determine who might have the best shot at the seat.

The two Democratic candidates who were immediately mentioned for the post last week were former Mississippi Attorney General Mike Moore (D) and former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove (D), who was defeated by Barbour in 2003. Both have confirmed that they are considering a run in the special.

Moore is well-known in the state for leading the legal fight waged by several states against the tobacco industry and helping to negotiate a payout worth millions of dollars to states across the country. Moore, now in private practice, is one Democrat who could raise a lot of money quickly. His potential strength in the Senate race could perhaps be gauged last week by the fact that Republican operatives were quick to play up Moore’s campaign and business ties to Richard Scruggs, an attorney who last week was indicted in an alleged scheme to bribe a Mississippi judge.

The name of former Mississippi Gov. Ray Mabus (D) also has been floated by Democrats for the special election, along with that of former Rep. Ronnie Shows (D).

One issue that could further complicate the already unusual circumstances of this resignation is the date that Lott chooses to step down from office.

The expectation is that Lott will step down before the end of the year, which, coincidentally, would mean that he would not have to operate under the newly strengthened lobbying laws for the Senate. If Lott resigns this year, he has to wait one year before he can lobby his former colleagues. If he resigns in 2008, he has to wait two years.

But as Terry Cassreino, a spokesman for the state Democratic Party, explained, if Lott resigns this year, the party believes that the current statutes require the special election to be held in the spring.

“Everything depends on when Sen. Lott actually resigns, when he steps down from office and what formal action the governor takes at that point,” Cassreino said. “If it’s before the end of the year we’re saying the state law is clear that you have to have an election within 100 days. If it’s Jan. 1 or beyond, then the election is in November.”

Some political analysts think an earlier special election could help the Democratic candidate because it would allow less time for the appointee to solidify his or her position in the Senate, and Democrats also may be at a disadvantage if the special election coincides with the presidential election in November. But Cassreino said the more important issue is “making sure the people are represented by someone they elect as soon as possible.”

Cassreino said he did not know what course the party would take if Lott resigns this year and Barbour moves ahead with a November election.

“If and when that happens then it would be up to the Democratic Party executive committee to make a decision as to which step to take if any,” he said. “So I couldn’t say right now whether or not this could lead to legal action or not.”