Sen. Scottie Cuevas of Pass Christian filed a challenge with the Mississippi Democratic Party last week, contesting the primary in Senate District 46, in which challenger David Baria beat him by 36 votes. The Democratic Party may address the complaint at a Sept. 8 committee meeting. If the committee decides the complaint has merit, the party could throw out some precincts in dispute, toss the whole election and hold a re-vote, or officially ignore the complaint.
If they ignore it, lobbyist Pete Perry said Cuevas would file a complaint with the Hancock or Harrison County Circuit Court.
Cuevas, a Democrat, hired Perry—chairman of the Hinds County Republican Party—to investigate irregularities at the polls. Perry said he turned up potential problems.
"There were several instances reported of people voting where their vote didn't register as they'd cast them. ... There were also several precincts where the machines showed they were voting beginning Monday night rather than Tuesday morning. This could have easily affected at least 36 votes," Perry said.
Baria disputes Perry's claims of irregularities. "I was allowed to review the same materials that the Cuevas team saw. We saw absolutely nothing (that) would change the outcome of this election," Baria said, "I question why Cuevas needs a Republican chairman from Hinds County to come down and disparage the Hancock County Circuit Clerk and election commissioners. It seems obvious to me that the governor wants Cuevas to keep his seat on the Senate."
Perry's son, Jim Perry, is Barbour's director of policy, though Perry insists the governor has nothing to do with his investigation of the ballot boxes.
"Baria's using that as a smokescreen," said Perry, a lobbyist at Paradigm Government Relations. "Does Baria check his clients to see if they're Republican or Democrat before he takes them? I'm a big supporter of Haley Barbour, but I don't take my lobbying clients based on whether they're for the governor or against them."
Cuevas would probably count as one of those clients in the "for the governor" category.
"Cuevas represents a Democratic district, but Scottie really hasn't been acting like a Democrat based on his voting," said Walter Howell, a lobbyist with AARP. "He's voted consistently with the governor on just about everything. We're talking about the cigarette tax and everything associated with the Mississippi Adequate Education Program. When the governor opposed MAEP, so did Scottie, and on a number of other issues, going all the way back to PLAD, the poverty level age and disabled issue. Remember that? Scottie was with Barbour on that, too."
While Perry picks apart one close victory, he soon may be defending another. Perry told the Jackson Free Press that Sen. H. Nolan Mettetal, D-Sardis, may also hire him to defend Mettetal's narrow 88-vote victory in Senate District 10 against challenger Mona Pittman during the run-off.
"If (Pittman) files a complaint with the circuit clerk to inspect the ballot boxes, Mettetal said I might be handling that for him," Perry said.
Pittman said she may contest the race, saying poll workers spied vote tampering.
"I have heard that some of (my people) witnessed firsthand some violations of the election laws, voter intimidation and other things, and we want to make sure the numbers add up," Pittman said.
Mettetal is another Senate Democrat who aligns himself with Republican votes—and Barbour—voting against issues like MAEP and the recent cigarette/grocery tax swap.
Barbour has good reason to protect his friends in the Senate this year, especially with at least three Senate seats in Democratic districts proving competitive, Howell said.
"The way the chips are falling, the Democrats are probably going to regain control of the Senate this year. Travis Little's seat is open, and the Dems are strongly favored to win, and there's a very good chance Ralph Doxey is going to lose in his race," Howell said.
Doxey, a former Democrat who went Republican in 2004, is now fighting for his seat in Democrat-leaning Marshall County.
Sen. James "Shannon" Walley, who also switched parties to become a Republican last year, is also in trouble, according to politicos.
"That's one of the wildest races I've ever seen because you had Walley beat (Tommy) Dickerson after Dickerson, the incumbent, switched from Dem to Republican. Walley beat him as a Democrat but then switched parties to become Republican himself. Now Dickerson has switched back to the Democratic Party, and a lot of people are saying he's going to beat (Walley)," said Marty Wiseman, director of the John C. Stennis Institute for Government.
Senate District 42 is also up for grabs, with Republican Sen. Stacey Pickering surrendering the seat to chase the state auditor's office, leaving Republican Chris McDaniel to fend off the advances of Democratic challenger Martin Beech. Beech won his primary with more than 6,000 votes, compared to McDaniel's 2,600 votes.
The Republican edge in the Senate was only 27-25 during the last session. Ceding three seats to the Democrats will amount to a new 28-24 Senate alignment.
Mississippi Republican Party Chairman Jim Herring said he did not expect his party to lose any seats in the Senate this year.
"The fact is that back in 2001, there were 35 Democrats, 18 Republicans. Today, there are 27 Republicans and 25 Democrats. … In 2001 we had one state office. … Today, we hold five," Herring said.