With less than a week to go before primary day in Mississippi, wealthy businessman David Landrum, the assumed frontrunner in the 3rd district GOP race, has been tripped up by controversy over his voting record — or lack thereof — dating back to 2003.
The Landrum campaign, with the help of a strong fundraising arm and more than a half-million dollars of Landrum’s personal fortune, has enjoyed a strong media presence during the race. That has helped to build up Landrum’s name identification in the crowded eight-way GOP primary to replace retiring Rep. Chip Pickering (R).
But depending on how much traction the issue generates in the coming days, Mississippi Republican insiders say the voting flap has the potential to make Landrum vulnerable in a runoff for the GOP nomination or possibly even knock him out of one of the top two spots.
The emerging controversy stems from concerns raised in late February by former Pickering aide John Rounsaville (R) — who also is running to replace his former boss — that Landrum didn’t vote in the 2003 election.
In that year’s Mississippi gubernatorial election, Landrum made donations to the campaigns of both Democrat Ronnie Musgrove and Republican Haley Barbour. Though Landrum has given significantly more money to GOP candidates, some of his opponents questioned his Republican bona fides for his Musgrove donation.
Landrum insisted that, like any good Magnolia State Republican, he voted for Barbour. He said he voted by affidavit that year because, after he and his family moved to Hinds County in 2002, his name was not on the official voter rolls.
To back up those claims, Landrum’s campaign produced documents that they said proved both Landrum and his wife voted in Hinds County. Those voter roll documents contained signatures that Landrum told Mississippi reporters were both his and his wife’s.
But an investigation by the Clarion-Ledger newspaper found that those signatures did not match up to either Landrum or his wife. In an article published Sunday, the Clarion-Ledger found two former Hinds County voters who said the signatures were in fact theirs.
This week Landrum explained that his campaign released the voter roll documents before he had the chance to review them and admitted that the signatures were neither his nor his wife’s.
Landrum campaign manager Neil Forbes said Wednesday that Landrum and his wife were on the campaign trail on the day the campaign released the documents and had been unable to verify their signatures.
According to an e-mail sent to supporters by Jill Landrum, Forbes offered to resign over the matter but Landrum refused.
This week, Landrum continued to insist that he voted in 2003 and Forbes said the campaign is calling for an investigation into what happened to Landrum and his wife’s voting records, which have yet to be found. Forbes described the entire issue as “desperation politics” stirred up by other campaigns. He added that the camp wants to find out who had access to Landrum’s voting records and if those records could have been tampered with.
On Wednesday, several Mississippi political insiders described the voting controversy as a classic case of the coverup being worse than the crime.
“If he didn’t vote and had voter registration problems just say so and move on,” said Sid Salter, an editor and syndicated columnist with the Clarion-Ledger who was involved in the paper’s investigation into the Landrum controversy. “In a nutshell the coverup and disingenuous manner in which it has been handled I think is much more of an issue than not voting itself.”
But is it enough to knock Landrum out of a runoff?
Probably not, Salter said. A lot more people have seen Landrum’s TV commercials than have seen the story on his voting record. But that could change in a runoff.
“At that point I think it’s a whole new ballgame and I think there’s going to be an even greater level of scrutiny brought to bear on his statements and on these bogus releases,” Salter said.
“I do think [the controversy] absolutely stopped whatever momentum [Landrum] might have had, and wherever he was two weeks ago is about his high point,” said Mississippi attorney Andy Taggart, a former chief of staff to then-Gov. Kirk Fordice (R).
Taggart said the biggest beneficiary of the current voting flap may not be Rounsaville, who sparked the entire issue, but rather state Sen. Charlie Ross and Rankin County Republican Party Chairman Gregg Harper, who are the other top-tier Republicans in the primary race.
“Sometimes the conventional wisdom is even if a claim is accurate the person who has blown the whistle on it sometimes gets fragged by having made the claim,” Taggart said. “This is definitely … to the benefit of both Ross and Harper, who have been perceived to be outside the fray and I think they are benefiting from the fact that lots of people are falling off Landrum.”
For his part, Harper chose not to discuss the voting issue in an interview Wednesday.
“We are going to continue to run a clean, positive campaign, and we will stay on message until the end of this race,” Harper said. “I do believe that if there’s a runoff that we’ll be in that runoff.”