GOP Favored for Mississippi Seats

Posted April 2, 2008 at 6:42pm

Former Rankin County Republican Party Chairman Gregg Harper will be the strong favorite to fill the seat of retiring Rep. Chip Pickering (R) in Mississippi’s 3rd district after he beat out state Sen. Charlie Ross (R) in a GOP runoff Tuesday.

But in Mississippi’s 1st district, where the seat of now-Sen. Roger Wicker (R) remains open, the final outcome is a little less certain.

On Tuesday, Southaven Mayor Greg Davis defeated former Tupelo Mayor Glenn McCullough in the Republican runoff by just 2 points, according to unofficial results. Coming into the runoff, McCullough actually led Davis after the primary vote in March by 2 points. Davis was able to win even though McCullough was able to secure the support of the party’s third-place finisher in the primary, ophthalmologist Randy Russell.

Meanwhile in the Democratic runoff, Prentiss County Chancery Clerk Travis Childers defeated state Rep. Steve Holland by 14 points, according to unofficial results.

But looking ahead, the most interesting statistic from Tuesday’s election is the fact that once again more Democrats came out to vote in the runoff than Republicans. More than 36,000 Democrats voted for Childers or Holland on Tuesday compared with about 33,000 Republicans who voted for Davis or McCullough.

During the March primary, Childers alone earned 40,000 votes, which was just slightly less than the total number of Republicans who voted for all three GOP candidates.

Childers’ campaign manager Joel Coon said Wednesday that the numbers speak for themselves about the Democrats’ chances of stealing what has been considered a fairly safe Republican seat. He added that Democratic excitement in the district is palpable with just three weeks to go until the April 22 special election in which Childers and Davis will both compete in an open special for the remaining months left on Wicker’s House term.

“We worked hard to turn people out, but we didn’t work hard enough to turn that many people out, especially in the rain and bad weather,” Coon said. “Republicans spent about four times as much money as the Democrats did in the runoff, and we still turned out more voters than they did.”

What Childers will need to do if he hopes to steal the 1st district seat now — and it will be significantly harder for him to take the seat in November when his name will appear on the ballot under one of the Democratic presidential nominees — will be to turn the special election into a regional battle rather than a party battle. Childers hails from Booneville, which is just 30 miles outside of Tupelo. Tupelo, of course, is Wicker’s hometown as well as McCullough’s base. Davis, on the other hand, hails from DeSoto County, the district’s most populous Republican county.

If Childers can present himself as a conservative Democrat and avoid being painted as a party foot soldier who will stand behind the liberal policies of national party leaders, he might be able to peel off some McCullough voters, build on the apparent party enthusiasm and make a race out of the special election.

Taking the seat now would allow Childers to build up his name identification, base of support and campaign war chest as an incumbent and give him a better chance of hanging on to the seat in November’s general election.

But one problem with that strategy is that Democratic turnout numbers might have been skewed in the primary elections. 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, which is allowed in open primary states like Mississippi. Those voters were allowed to vote in Tuesday’s Democratic runoff but were disqualified from voting in the Republican runoff.

“Anecdotally I’d say about 10 percent of that Democratic vote in the primary was generated by … Republican crossover in the Democratic primary,” said Richard Forgette, chairman of the University of Mississippi political science department. “You need to factor that in [to the special election]. Those [Republican voters] may return in the special election, and they will be free to express a preference in that election.”

Another huge factor standing in Childers’ way is that Mississippi’s Republican giants, most especially Gov. Haley Barbour, are not likely to stand idly by and watch the House delegation turn majority Democratic (Democratic Reps. Bennie Thompson and Gene Taylor represent the 2nd and 4th district, respectively.)

Davis was backed in his runoff campaign by the state’s still influential ex-Sen. Trent Lott (R) and though McCullough received support from Sen. Thad Cochran (R) in his campaign, Cochran is almost certain to lend Davis a hand.

“Making a play for the special election on April 22 in the event that a Democrat could somehow hold onto this seat in November in a presidential election year would be a hope, not a strategy,” said National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Ken Spain.

Back in the 1st district, Harper will face Pickens Alderman Joel Gill — who secured the 3rd district Democratic nomination in the state’s March 11 primary — in November.

By all accounts, Harper earned his victory on the back of a superior get-out-the-vote and grass-roots effort after he was outraised and outspent by Ross in both the primary and runoff. Though he was 5 points behind Ross in a poll right after the March primary, Harper earned a resounding 14-point victory on Tuesday.