Mississippi Open-Seat Races Taking Shape

Posted January 14, 2008 at 6:35pm

If Democrats had to choose between the two open House seats that are up for grabs in Mississippi in 2008, the 1st district probably presents a slightly better pickup opportunity.

But that’s not saying a whole lot.

Both the 1st and 3rd are safe Republican districts when gauged by any political measuring stick, and it appears likely that the GOP primary on March 11 is going to be the place where the replacements for now-Sen. Roger Wicker (R) and retiring Rep. Chip Pickering (R) will be found.

By Friday’s deadline, three Republicans had qualified for Wicker’s 1st district seat after the seven-term Congressman was selected by Gov. Haley Barbour (R) at the end of 2007 to fill the seat of former Sen. Trent Lott (R) until a special election can be held.

The early frontrunners are Southaven Mayor Greg Davis and former Tupelo Mayor Glenn McCullough.

The two candidates are setting up a showdown between two of the largest population centers in the district; Northwestern DeSoto County, where Southaven is a suburb of Memphis, and Lee County, where Tupelo — Wicker’s hometown — is located.

Falling between Southaven and Tupelo is Oxford, which is the hometown of the third Republican candidate, Randy Russell, an ophthalmologist and former state Board of Health official.

Davis is in the middle of his third term as mayor of Southaven after serving as a state Representative for seven years. He first won the state legislative seat in 1991, taking over from John Grisham when the famous author retired from the Legislature to devote himself to his writing career.

McCullough, who currently serves as a partner with the Mississippi business development firm Ardillo McCullough & Taggart, is also the former chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority Board of Directors, a position he was appointed to by President Bush in 2001.

Both Davis and McCullough agreed Monday that with the short campaign season created by Wicker’s appointment, the key to winning the 1st district seat will mean campaigning district-wide and not just relying on their individual base of voters and name recognition in their hometowns.

Interestingly, both men said they don’t expect Wicker to get involved in the race to fill his seat as the now-Senator is vigorously campaigning statewide to keep his new job in the November special election that will decide who will fill the remaining years left on Lott’s term. Wicker’s special election may be more competitive than the 1st district race as he is running against two popular Democrats, former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove and former Rep. Ronnie Shows.

“I have a feeling that Mr. Wicker, just like anyone else that runs for office, will be so involved in running his own race that he won’t get involved in this one,” Davis said.

“Sen. Wicker and Sen. [Thad] Cochran [who is up for re-election in November] have their campaigns and I respect them and I wish them well and much success,” McCullough said. “We’re going to run hard and run positive and just make our case and the support that comes along during the campaign will be much appreciated, but we intend to earn it.”

One unusual challenge that every 1st district candidate faces will be trying to explain to voters the unique election calendar that will play out over the next several months in Northern Mississippi. Friday’s qualifying deadline was for the primary for November’s general election. But with Wicker having resigned his seat, Barbour also will have to set a date this spring for an open special election for Wicker’s remaining term. That election also will have its own qualifying deadline and may or may not take place on the same day as the March 11 primary.

“When we travel around the district, one of the first questions is how many elections are there and when do I vote, and those are good questions,” McCullough acknowledged.

On the Democratic side, five candidates qualified last week for the 1st district race.

Among them are Steve Holland, a state Representative and former Congressional aide, and Travis Childers, a businessman and county official who last week announced that his campaign raised $100,000 in one week.

Farther south, in the Central Mississippi 3rd district, just two Democrats had qualified in the race to replace Pickering, while eight Republicans will officially be on the primary ballot.

“I think that what undoubtedly is happening is that with more candidates entering the race there’s greater uncertainty, which is inviting others to enter in the hopes of a really fractured vote share,” said Richard Forgette, chairman of the University of Mississippi political science department. “[Candidates are] anticipating that there is going to be a runoff election in the hopes that maybe they can get that second position in the runoff and thus surge” to victory.

The top tier of Republican candidates includes Charlie Ross, who entered the race with the biggest name recognition stemming from his multiple terms in the state Legislature; and businessman David Landrum, whose strong fundraising efforts are raising eyebrows among Capitol Hill Republicans. In a year in which the national Republican Party committees are badly losing the fundraising battle, Landrum released fundraising numbers last week that showed that he raised over half a million dollars in the fourth quarter of 2007 and had about $250,000 in cash on hand.

Two other well-known Republicans in the 3rd district race are attorney and Rankin County GOP Chairman Gregg Harper and John Rounsaville, a former official with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and one-time aide to both Pickering and Barbour.

Rounsaville on Monday tried to downplay Landrum’s fundraising achievements. Rounsaville said Landrum spent about half his fundraising total during a period in which the electorate was focused on Lott’s Senate seat and politically fatigued by the 2007 state elections.

“Everybody’s focus was on other things,” Rounsaville said. “There’s been so much going on in Mississippi politics over the winter that I don’t think people were paying attention to this 3rd district seat. … But now that the qualifying deadline is past, people’s attention will now focus on the 3rd district race. I think the race basically starts now.”