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Race for Pickering’s Seat Tops ’08 Political Agenda

There are a number of areas in the traditionally Republican South where either shifting demographics or the current winds of political change have opened up some enticing new possibilities for the Democratic Party.

But the state of Mississippi just isn’t one of those places. [IMGCAP(1)]

Even with one of its two GOP House Members set to retire at the end of this Congress and one of its two Republican Senators up for re-election next year, it appears that the Magnolia State will give national GOP leaders little reason to worry in the 2008 cycle. Meanwhile, a deep Republican bench gives the party a wealth of options whenever there’s a vacancy in the foreseeable future.

Any discussion of Mississippi politics has to begin in the 3rd district, where Rep. Chip Pickering (R), 44, announced last month that he plans to retire next year and move into the private sector.

Pickering’s announcement presents a rare opportunity in a state that historically is content to elect its Senators and Representatives for as long as they wish to serve. So even though the final stages of the 2007 elections for state constitutional offices and the Legislature are about to get under way, several names already are being tossed around in what is expected to be a crowded GOP field in 2008 to replace Pickering.

Rankin County GOP Chairman Gregg Harper has been mentioned as a possible contender for the seat along with state Sens. Charlie Ross and Walter Michel. All are veteran Mississippi politicians.

But any of those candidates could face a tough challenge from a slew of younger candidates who are considered up-and-comers in the Mississippi Republican party. They include John Rounsaville, a former official with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and one-time aide to both Pickering and Gov. Haley Barbour (R) who already has expressed his interest in the seat; and Whit Hughes, a deputy director with the Mississippi Development Authority who has worked as a fundraiser for both Barbour and Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.) and also was a member of the 1996 Mississippi State University basketball team that went to the NCAA Final Four.

Possibly joining them is state Treasurer Tate Reeves (R), 33, who is favored to win a second term in November.

And with even more Republicans likely to emerge after November’s election, the scramble for Pickering’s seat is only going to get more intense.

“I think there are some people that have some interest in the 3rd district that are a little early to the dance, but they know that their next shot, their next bite at the apple, will not come for another decade or two,” said Alan Lange, editor of Y’all Politics, a blog tracking Magnolia State politics. “That’s why they’ve got to go now. So you’re seeing young and old people who have been kind of waiting around … if this is something they want, they know the opportunity is not going to come around again for a long time.”

John Keast, a longtime Mississippi Republican operative, pointed to the current campaigns of Reeves and Stacey Pickering (R) — who is a cousin of the 3rd district Congressman and is running for state auditor this year — as just two examples of how Mississippi is a breeding ground for strong young Republican candidates.

“If you want to look at the development of the Mississippi Republican bench, look no farther than the November elections,” Keast said.

On the Democratic side in the 3rd district, former Rep. Ronnie Shows has been one of just a few names mentioned for the seat that favored President Bush by an almost 2-1 margin over Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in the 2004 presidential election. Shows lost not only his race to Pickering but also his entire district in 2002 after reapportionment following the 2000 Census cut the Mississippi Congressional delegation by one seat. The new map merged Shows’ Jackson-based 5th district with Pickering’s 3rd district, and Pickering won their matchup 64 percent to 35 percent.

But Shows’ fate in 2002 also has Democrats keenly interested in this year’s legislative elections, especially as they look to the next round of redistricting that will take place after the 2010 Census.

Although Mississippi is likely going to keep its current four districts, Democrats, who currently control the state House and are within two seats of taking back the Senate, are hoping they also can pick up the vacant lieutenant governor’s seat and then favorably reshape district lines.

“You would think if you had a Democratic-leaning legislature that the lines would be drawn more favorably for Democratic candidates,” one Mississippi Democratic operative said. “Then I think we’ve got a legitimate shot of regaining that [3rd district] seat in the election immediately after redistricting. I think that’s the long-term plan.”

In the more immediate future, Democrats are looking to hold their two House seats in the state, something Rep. Gene Taylor (D) continues to be able to do in the coastal 4th district despite a strong Republican lean there. Many political insiders have considered it a foregone conclusion that Taylor’s district will fall into Republican hands whenever the 10-term Congressman decides to retire.

In the Senate, Democrats can only hope for a retirement announcement from Thad Cochran (R) before the 2008 cycle to have any chance at all of picking up a seat in that body. A retirement announcement would be unexpected from the five-term Senator who turns 70 this year, but one Mississippi Democratic campaign watcher said that such an opening would give former state Attorney General Mike Moore (D) a golden opportunity for a political comeback. Moore led the legal fight waged by several states against the tobacco industry and helped negotiate a payout worth millions of dollars to several states, and it is expected that he could raise a lot of money very quickly if he considered a Senate bid.

“There is nobody in Mississippi politics and government who can command an audience the way Mike Moore can,” the Democratic operative said. “When he gets up there to speak he’s got you in the palm of his hand whether you are Republican or Democrat. … With him not getting in a gubernatorial race if a Senate seat opened people would expect him to jump at it.”

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