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Is the GOP Counting Its Chickens Too Early In Mississippi?

CLEVELAND, Miss. — For months, the top issue on the minds of the folks in Northwest Mississippi was the fate of the farm bill in Congress. But a close second was politics. And what they were thinking is not good news for the already weary national Republican Party.

[IMGCAP(1)]Much as the recent special House election in the state’s 1st district was mistakenly assumed to be an automatic win for the GOP, the Mississippi Senate race is too often assumed, at least in the nation’s capital, to be a Southern slam-dunk for Roger Wicker (R), who was appointed earlier this year to fill the Senate seat left vacant by Republican Trent Lott’s retirement. It isn’t.

My recent conversations with dozens of politically attuned observers in the 18-county region of Mississippi known as the Delta have convinced me that GOP strategists face the same problems in the Senate race that allowed Travis Childers (D) to win the House special election last month.

Wicker is widely regarded as an extremely “nice guy,” a relatively low-key, consistently conservative former state legislator who was elected to Congress in 1994 and re-elected six more times before being tapped by Gov. Haley Barbour (R) for the Senate.

The Democrat in the Senate race is former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, a tenacious campaigner and world-class schmoozer. Musgrove served in the state Senate and as lieutenant governor before being elected to the state’s top job in 1999. Four years later, his political career was abruptly cut short when he was defeated for re-election by Barbour, who is himself a skilled politician.

While Musgrove may not be as conservative as Childers, he is conservative enough to appeal to white swing voters, the same group that elected Childers in the 1st district and could play a similar role in the Senate contest.

As governor, Musgrove praised controversial Alabama Judge Roy Moore and invited him to display his Ten Commandments monument in the Mississippi Capitol. That’s the same monument that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled had to be removed from the Alabama Supreme Court building.

Musgrove also signed legislation requiring “In God We Trust” to be displayed in every state classroom, as well as legislation banning gay couples from adopting children in the state and prohibiting the state from recognizing adoptions by gay couples in other states.

As in the House special election, the Wicker-Musgrove contest to fill the remaining four years of Lott’s term will not identify the two nominees by party on the ballot, depriving Wicker of a likely advantage in a presidential year.

Veteran Magnolia State observers believe that Musgrove will be able to tap the public’s desire for change and their disgust with Washington, D.C. They believe that the damage to the Republican Party’s national brand limits the extent to which Wicker can benefit from his party, and that Musgrove simply is a better campaigner and has strong appeal with the “Bubba” vote.

Wicker was not helped when President Bush vetoed what he referred to as the “bloated farm bill.” While both Wicker and the state’s senior Senator, Thad Cochran (R), supported the measure and voted to override Bush’s veto, Delta farmers weren’t amused by the president’s remarks, and they don’t see presumptive GOP presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) as sympathetic to them, either.

Two mid-May polls showed a competitive Senate race. A Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee poll found Musgrove ahead 48 percent to 40 percent, while a survey conducted by Research 2000 for Daily Kos, a liberal Democratic Web site, showed Wicker leading 46 percent to 42 percent. The Daily Kos poll included candidate party ID.

Regardless of which survey is closer to the truth, together they suggest Wicker has plenty of work to do if Republicans want to hold onto this seat.

Wicker’s biggest advantage right now is money. The Republican ended March with more than $2.7 million in the bank, a massive financial advantage over Musgrove, who showed $337,000 on hand at the same time.

The appointed Senator has already run his first TV spot, an ad running in the Biloxi media market that hails him as “a longtime friend of the Gulf Coast.” The ad emphasizes that he “achieved bipartisan support,” noting his “work with Cochran, Lott “and Congressman Taylor,” a reference to popular Democratic Rep. Gene Taylor.

Republicans correctly note that, unlike Childers, Musgrove begins with some problems he can’t ignore.

In the past, the former governor had close relations with and raised huge sums of money from the trial lawyer community. But convictions of judges and trial lawyers over the past couple of years, including wealthy, influential Dickie Scruggs, has both soiled the reputation of that industry and raised questions about future trial lawyer contributions.

A round of federal indictments this spring in connection with the state’s awarding of contracts (during Musgrove’s term as governor) for the building of a Mississippi Beef Processors plant has given Republicans another line of attack against Musgrove.

The Democrat’s campaign manager has insisted that her candidate “had nothing to do with the awarding of any of the contracts,” and the former governor has not been charged with anything. Still, it’s easy to see how Republicans can use the issue.

Musgrove may also suffer from the fallout surrounding his divorce.

Many local observers believe that Musgrove has the advantage in the race. Whether they are right, there is little doubt now that Wicker and the National Republican Senatorial Committee have a serious fight on their hands. Said one savvy local observer, “Wicker needs to Bubba up.”

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of The Rothenberg Political Report.

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