Magnolia State Runoffs Loom

Posted March 12, 2008 at 6:26pm

Don’t expect as much excitement out of Mississippi’s 1st and 3rd district general elections as there has been in the primaries.

Mississippians in the state’s two most Republican House districts will have to wait three more weeks to find out who will move on to November after both GOP primary contests ended in runoffs Tuesday — as did one Democratic primary.

A runoff is required in the Magnolia State when no candidate garners more than 50 percent of the primary vote, and in the 1st district race to fill the seat of now-Sen. Roger Wicker (R), unofficial results gave former Tupelo Mayor Glenn McCullough (R) 39 percent and Southhaven Mayor Greg Davis (R) 37 percent.

While a Public Opinion Strategies poll conducted in late February for

Davis’ campaign gave Davis an 18-point lead, McCullough appeared to come on strong in the last two weeks. Not only was he able to rally his Tupelo base — which was also Wicker’s base during his seven House terms — but Tuesday’s vote showed that he beat Davis in 18 of 24 counties in the district. He also outraised Davis over the last 10 days of the campaign, according to Federal Election Commission reports.

But the real surprise of the 1st district race was the third candidate, ophthalmologist Randy Russell (R), who picked up 24 percent of the vote despite being picked by many state insiders to finish in the single digits. Russell’s unexpectedly strong showing was funded in large part by the $145,000 of his own money.

By Wednesday afternoon, media reports indicated that Russell was preparing to throw his support behind McCullough in the runoff. The move would be another blow to Davis’ campaign, though far from a knockout punch.

According to county results posted in the Clarion Ledger newspaper, Davis had a strong showing in DeSoto County, the district’s largest GOP stronghold. More than half of Davis’ 16,161 votes came from DeSoto, while McCullough was only able to pick up 1,856 in the county and Russell took 1,656 there. And by all accounts, the DeSoto turnout was lower than expected. If Davis can energize his DeSoto base, and pick up the voters in the county that went to Russell, he will put himself in a very good position in the runoff despite Russell’s support of McCullough.

The Democratic primary in the 1st district also ended in a runoff between Prentiss County Chancery Clerk Travis Childers, who took 42 percent, and state Rep. Steve Holland, who took 31 percent. Both would face an uphill challenge in a general election in a district that President Bush carried with 62 percent in his 2004 reelection campaign. But state Democrats were encouraged by the fact that more than twice as many people voted in the Democratic primary than in the Republican contest. Indeed, Childers’ nearly 40,000 votes was close to the total number of votes that were cast in the Republican primary.

Mississippi runs an open primary system where voters, regardless of party, can pick which primary to vote in, and many may have chosen the Democratic ballot to participate in the hotly contested presidential nomination fight.

“People are being drawn and attracted to the Democratic Party in waves that we haven’t seen in years because they are looking for a change,” state Democratic party spokesman Terry Cassreino said of the surprisingly large turnout. “This is filtering down into the 1st district race and the 3rd district race. Our Democrats in those races are feeding off the enthusiasm and energy that is evident in the presidential campaigns.”

Republicans offered a different explanation. Not only was the Republican presidential primary non-competitive, which always lowers turnout, but many Republican voters may have strategically voted in the Democratic primary.

“Rush [Limbaugh] was talking about [Republicans] going to vote for [Sen. Hillary Rodham] Clinton [D-N.Y.] to beat [Sen. Barack] Obama [D-Ill.], and we saw some kickback from that in DeSoto County,” said Ted Prill, Davis’ campaign manager. But it’s not like those voters should be counted on by Democrats in the general election.

Besides, Republicans say, even if just under 100,000 voters came out for the Democratic primary, it’s still a primary race. The last time Wicker faced a Democrat in a presidential year general election he cruised to victory on the back of 219,328 votes.

In the central Mississippi 3rd district, where Rep. Chip Pickering (R) is retiring at the end of this Congress, Pickens Alderman Joel Gill (D) will face the winner of the April 1 Republican runoff between state Sen. Charlie Ross and former Ranking County Republican Chairman Gregg Harper. In the crowded race, Ross, who was no doubt helped by the name recognition he built during a failed 2007 campaign for lieutenant governor, took 33 percent of the vote on Tuesday. Meanwhile, Harper edged out wealthy businessman David Landrum by about 1,800 votes to make the runoff with 28 percent.

Two weeks ago Landrum seemed to be a sure bet to make the runoff based on his strong media presence in the district that was funded by $545,000 of his own money.

But a controversy, first stirred up by former Pickering aide John Rounsaville — who took just 10 percent of the vote in Tuesday’s primary — over whether Landrum voted in past state elections, took its toll on the businessman. The controversy turned into a firestorm. Late last week, Landrum lashed out at Rounsaville and Ross in a television spot that insinuated the two were involved in “dirty” campaign tactics.

Of the four top contenders in the race, Harper turned out to be the only candidate to avoid being caught up in the mudslinging that developed and his strong grassroots campaign allowed him to slip, somewhat under the radar, into the runoff.

In a head to head matchup with Ross, Harper won’t be under the radar any longer.

But Harper does have a few things going for him in the runoff.

First, by being able to avoid the Landrum voting record firestorm he might earn the endorsement of Landrum in the runoff.

A spokesman for Landrum said Wednesday that any endorsement decision by Landrum wouldn’t be coming until next week at the earliest.

Harper’s other asset is that he outperformed Ross in the district’s largest Republican stronghold, Rankin County, where both hail from. Harper took 38 percent of the vote in Rankin while Ross took 34 percent, according to the Clarion Ledger’s unofficial numbers.

Ross appears likely to continue to campaign on a message of experience, pointing to his 11 years in the Mississippi state legislature.

“We’re going to try to continue to get our conservative message out,” said Ross communications director Kell Smith. “We did receive the most votes Tuesday. … It’s always good to have more votes than the other guy.”