Both U.S. House District 1 and former Sen. Trent Lott's seats could prove competitive this year, despite a decades-long trend of Republican domination in Mississippi.
Lott announced his retirement last November, and stepped down on Dec. 18, prompting the speedy need for a replacement for the popular Republican.
Anonymous sources told CNN in November that one reason for Lott's decision to resign was the new lobbying restrictions on former lawmakers. A new law effective Jan. 1, 2008, forbids lawmakers from lobbying for two years after leaving office. However, those who leave by the end of 2007, like Lott, limit their wait to one year. The source also told CNN that Lott wanted to leave mere months after his re-election, so the person appointed to replace him would have almost a year in the Senate to cozy up to voters before the election.
That person is House District 1 Rep. Roger Wicker. Gov. Haley Barbour tapped Wicker to fill Lott's old seat as an interim successor until a special election could be held next November. Politicos speculated that Barbour would have preferred appointing House District 3 Rep. Chip Pickering to Lott's seat, but Pickering announced he, too, was ducking out of politics this year, and had no desire to pursue a seat.
Attorney General Jim Hood filed a motion in Hinds County Circuit Court to force Barbour to observe state and federal law, which calls for a special election within 90 days of the vacancy. "The governor, through his Dec. 20, 2007, proclamation, has impermissibly and without legal authority, delayed the special senatorial election by eight months," Hood argued in his motion, adding that Barbour's decision to delay the election beyond 90 days violates the 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Hood argued that the only exception to the 90-day rule applies if the vacancy occurs in a year with a state or congressional election, something that won't hold true in Lott's case because the senator retired more than a month after the 2007 general election.
Hinds County Circuit Court could rule favorably on Hood's motion, though Barbour would likely appeal to the Republican-dominated state Supreme Court, which might not rule in Hood's favor.
"The attorney general is entitled to his opinion," Barbour told The Clarion-Ledger, "but the Mississippi Supreme Court will ultimately make the decision."
If Barbour succeeds, Wicker will have eight extra months to endear himself to the voters and build up a bigger campaign war chest. Without the benefit of 11 months of occupancy, Wicker would be less financially prepared to face a Democratic challenger benefiting from money from national Democratic funding organizations. National fund-raisers like Democracy for America and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee will likely deliver considerable money to the cause.
Some Democrats claim the GOP-backed U.S. Department of Justice has injured statewide funding for Democrats, partly by targeting trial lawyers—like Gulf Coast attorney Paul Minor—who donate heavily to Democrats. Mississippi is a Republican-dominated exception, however. Democrats are doing well nationally, with fewer seats up for grabs this election year than Republicans, and with more money to advance to individual congressional races.
"We can't say whether we'd be contributing to Wicker's opponent. However, we can say we have more money on hand than our Republican counterpart," said Matt Miller, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "We had, at the end of November, $25.5 million on hand, and the National Republican Senatorial Committee, our counterpart, had $10.4 million. That's a big advantage."
Wicker's fight could also prove burdensome against a more recognizable opponent, such as former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove. The Musgrove name came out ahead of Wicker in a December poll by Washington polling group Greenberg Quinlan Rosner. Musgrove's numbers came in at 48 percent to Wicker's 34 percent in a majority white poll group, with only 33 percent black. Of the same group, 53 percent were female and 47 percent male.
"I wasn't shocked, in part because Musgrove was a statewide office holder, whereas Wicker was not," said Mike Bocian of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner. "It's certainly a state that's been very Republican at the presidential and Senate level, but, again, Wicker is not as well-known. Musgrove was relatively popular as a governor, but ran into a tough challenger a few years ago."
Bocian added that the 14-point lead is not a stone-chiseled number, especially with 11 months remaining before the election.
Campaign attacks could get ugly early on, as both Musgrove and Wicker have the disadvantage of political baggage. Political Web site pogo.org reported in December that Wicker blurred the line between lobbyists and politicians in 2007 when he requested an earmark for Manassas, Va., aerospace developer Aurora Flight Services. Aurora gave Wicker $13,000 in campaign contributions and financed some travel for Wicker, according to opensecrets.org. Also, Wicker's former chief-of-staff John Keast now works for Cornerstone Government Affairs, where he lobbies for Aurora.
As governor, Musgrove developed a hate-hate relationship with powerful, Republican-leaning talk radio while advocating for removing the pro-slavery battle emblem from the state flag and raising teacher pay. But he also alienated some Democrats during his failed 2003 election against Barbour when he pandered to religious fundamentalists by advocating for placing a Ten Commandments monument in the Mississippi Capitol. Musgrove further riled progressives by signing a bill banning gay and lesbian couples from adopting children in the state and restricting the state from recognizing adoptions from other states by gay and lesbian couples.
Former U.S. Rep. Ronnie Shows said this week he would also file papers to run against Wicker. Shows lost to Pickering in 2002 after his district merged with Pickering's following a 2000 Census report. Shows, a Democrat, ran on a conservative platform, but could not out-conservative Republican Pickering. Shows is currently a lobbyist in Bassfield.
Wicker's old House District 1 seat is also up for grabs.
"Wicker is interesting because Wicker's district has been gradually turning more blue over the last few years, certainly in the local elections," said Marty Wiseman, director of Mississippi State University's Stennis Institute of Government. "Wicker's district contains a lot of the white old-timey Democrats who didn't switch over to Republican in the last few decades. In fact, after the recent November election, there's really only about two or three red patches in Wicker's district these days."
So far, four potential names are bubbling to the surface in a potential race for Wicker's spot. Southaven Mayor Greg Davis filed to run in the campaign to replace Wicker last year, and former Tupelo Mayor Glen McCullough, Jr., could be another name on the Republican ticket.
On the Democratic side, Prentiss County Chancery Clerk Travis Childers announced he was entering the race. Childers has served as chancery clerk of Prentiss County for 16 years, and recently won re-election with 75 percent of the vote.
A prominent Democratic challenger could prove to be former Rep. Jamie Franks, who is looking for something to do since he lost his statewide election bid for lieutenant governor against former State Auditor Phil Bryant last year.
"I can tell you on the record he's seriously considering it," said James Hull, Franks' communication director during his campaign for lieutenant governor.
"The First Congressional District is right in his backyard. He knows a lot of people, and he carried much of it during the last election," Hull said.
"He got more votes in Lee County, which trended Republican during the last two or three elections. He carried his own home county, and he did well in Clay County, Lowndes County, and he got more votes in Desoto County than any other office holder has got in a statewide election, ever. All of these counties are inside District 1. This is a highly winnable district for Democrats."
Franks would not confirm the rumor.