Mississippi Runoffs Likely to Be Close

Posted March 31, 2008 at 6:20pm

Magnolia State voters will head to the polls today for the second time in three weeks to finally settle three races that required a runoff after last month’s primary election.

A two-person runoff is necessary in Mississippi 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), former Tupelo Mayor Glenn McCullough is facing Southaven Mayor Greg Davis in the Republican runoff. Meanwhile, Prentiss County Chancery Clerk Travis Childers is battling state Rep. Steve Holland in the Democratic runoff.

Down state, in retiring Rep. Chip Pickering’s (R) 3rd district, state Sen. Charlie Ross and former Rankin County Republican Party Chairman Gregg Harper are squaring off in the GOP runoff. The winner will face Pickens Alderman Joel Gill, who secured the Democratic nomination in the March 11 primary.

Traditionally, Mississippi voters are content to elect their Congressional Representatives for as long as they wish to serve, and that normally doesn’t make for a whole lot of turnover in the Mississippi delegation. So maybe that’s why so many of the state’s top political personalities and influential outside interest groups have made their preferences known in the current open-seat races in the Magnolia State.

Since the primaries, former Sen. Trent Lott (R), who once helped McCullough get the top job at the Tennessee Valley Authority, came out for Davis in the 1st district GOP race. Meanwhile, Lott’s old colleague, Sen. Thad Cochran (R), endorsed McCullough, whom he has known since before his time with the TVA.

McCullough came out of the March 11 primary with a 2-point lead on Davis and, perhaps more importantly, he since has earned the endorsement of the third GOP candidate in the race, ophthalmologist Randy Russell, who picked up 24 percent of the vote in his losing bid. A poll released by McCullough’s campaign a week after the primary showed that his lead had increased to 7 points.

McCullough raised more money in the primary race, but Davis has raised more money leading up to the runoff, even subtracting the $40,000 Davis loaned to his campaign last week. According to state Republican insiders, the 1st district GOP race is likely going to be decided in and around Davis’ base of DeSoto County, which is the district’s largest Republican stronghold.

According to certified election results, more than half of Davis’ 16,000 primary votes came from DeSoto County, where McCullough was able to garner only 1,866 votes.

Davis’ spokesman acknowledged Monday that Davis has spent the majority of his time in the past three weeks in DeSoto working to energize his base and get out new voters while trying to pick off the 1,600 or so Russell voters who voted in the primary.

“We knocked on 4,000 to 5,000 doors in DeSoto last week,” said Davis spokesman Ted Prill. And that was before Davis put his campaign on hold for a day last week after his father suffered a massive stroke. But with his father on the road to recovery, Davis resumed campaigning over the weekend.

One problem with a strategy of getting out new voters is that with the GOP presidential primary having already been decided before last month’s election, many Republican voters chose to vote in the hotly contested Democratic White House primary last month, which is allowed in open primary states like Mississippi. Those voters are now disqualified from voting in today’s Republican runoff.

But 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. In the short campaign period between the primary and the runoff, focusing on a smaller area also will be an advantage for Davis. McCullough beat Davis in the primary in 18 of 24 counties, but that also means he has had a larger geographic region to motivate and visit in a short amount of time.

Regardless of who wins the Republican runoff, that person will have a clear advantage in the general election in the conservative district. But state Democrats have said they are 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 on March 11 was close to the total number of votes that were cast in the Republican primary.

In the 3rd district, Ross, who finished the primary ahead of Harper, wasn’t helped when the third-place candidate, businessman David Landrum, came out recently in support of Harper. Landrum took 26 percent of the vote in his losing campaign.

Also since the primary, Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant (R) showed his support for Harper by donating money to his campaign, which is noteworthy because Bryant defeated Ross last year in what became a particularly bitter lieutenant governor’s primary. Harper’s other asset is that he outperformed Ross in the district’s largest Republican stronghold, Rankin County, where both hail from. Harper took about 850 more votes in Rankin than Ross did, and Harper’s campaign is looking to increase that lead among the 5,000 voters who chose Landrum or one of the other four candidates in the crowded primary.

Capitol Hill and Mississippi Republican insiders said Monday that while Ross has shown he has the monetary edge in the runoff race, Harper has shown a strong grass-roots and get-out-the-vote presence that proved itself when he surprised many by making it into the runoff.

But Ross has the support of some key interest groups in this conservative stronghold, including the Club for Growth, which dropped $58,000 in independent expenditures on the race last week. Also last week, Ross picked up the endorsement of the National Rifle Association.

While Harper began the runoff with less than $10,000 left in the bank, Ross still had more than $115,000.