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Free Citizen

This writer espouses individual liberty, free markets, and limited government.

Location: Jackson, Mississippi, United States

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Mississippi's Special U. S. Senate Race

The special election for the U. S. Senate seat from which the Republican Trent Lott resigned will occur at the general election on November 4. The race, which features the Republican Roger Wicker and the Democrat Ronnie Musgrove, has turned out to be closer than had first been anticipated.

Sidney Salter writes: "... there have only been three open U.S. Senate seats from Mississippi since 1947 - the race to succeed Democratic U.S. Sen. James Oliver "Big Jim" Eastland of Doddsville in 1978, the race to succeed Democratic U.S. Sen. John Cornelius Stennis of DeKalb in 1988 and this current race to succeed Lott between Musgrove and Wicker."

There's a key difference between the two earlier races and the present one: Wicker, elevated to the Senate by Gov. Haley Barbour after 13 years as the 1st District congressman, is a candidate for the remaining four years of the term. How can that be considered an "open" seat?

1947 was when the special election was held for a successor to the late Sen. Theodore G. Bilbo. Mississippi's special elections were then nonpartisan, as they are today: there are no party primaries, and all candidates are listed on the same ballot. However, such contests were then one-round "first past the post" elections, and circuit judge John Stennis won with 26.9 percent. U. S. Rep. William Colmer, a Dixiecrat, finished second in the six-man field (which even included a Republican, who ran dead last). If there had been a runoff, Colmer would surely have defeated the more moderate Stennis.

In 1948, House speaker Walter Sillers, a Dixiecrat, pushed through a provision requiring 50-plus percent to win a special election, and that has been the law ever since.

Evers Helped Cochran Get Elected To The Senate

"In 1978, the battle to choose a successor to Eastland saw... Republican 4th District U.S. Rep. Thad Cochran turn back the challenge of Democrat Maurice Dantin of Columbia and independent Charles Evers of Fayette.

"A lifelong Democrat until the mid-1970s, Evers left the party over complaints that state Democrats took African-American voters 'for granted'... . Cochran won the general election with a 45 percent plurality of the vote, trailed by Dantin with [31.8] percent and Evers with [22.9] percent."

Henry Kirksey, a perennial black independent candidate, got 0.3 percent of the vote. Kirksey was elected to the state Senate as a Democrat in 1979 and 1983.

Since the 1978 U. S. Senate race was a regular election, 50-plus percent was not needed to win.

Sidney must have forgotten about the 1971 governor's race, in which Evers ran as an independent and got 22.1 percent against the Democrat Bill Waller Sr. (the Republicans did not run a gubernatorial candidate that year). Ironically, as Hinds County district attorney, Waller had twice prosecuted Byron de la Beckwith for the 1963 murder of NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers, Charles's brother.

Besides the 1978 Senate campaign, Evers ran at least one other statewide race-- in 1983 for governor, when he got just 3.9 percent of the vote. He made all of his statewide races as an independent because (1) independents only have to run in the general election, (2) he knew he couldn't get 50-plus percent in a statewide party primary, and (3) 50-plus percent is not required to win a general election[1].

Evers, who was once Mississippi's Democratic national committeeman, ran numerous times for local and district offices, always under a party label. He bolted the Democrats in 1980 to back the Republican Ronald Reagan over President Jimmy Carter, but Evers did not actually become a Republican until circa the late '80s.

Sidney claims that "Mississippi has in the past given President George W. Bush the highest percentage win of any state in the union."

In 2000, the Magnolia State voted 57 percent for Bush, as Alabama and South Carolina also did. At least six other states gave the Texan even higher percentages: Texas and Alaska, 59 percent each; Oklahoma, 60 percent; Utah, 67 percent; and Idaho and Wyoming, 69 percent each.

In 2004, Mississippi gave Bush 60 percent of its vote. Texas and Alaska each gave him 61 percent; Alabama, 63 percent; Oklahoma, 66 percent; Idaho and Wyoming, 69 percent each; and Utah, 72 percent.

"The national Democratic ticket could be either blessing or curse for [former Gov.] Musgrove."

Mississippi has voted Republican in every presidential election since 1980; in fact, Jimmy Carter (1976) is the only Democratic presidential nominee to have carried the Magnolia State since Adlai Stevenson did in 1956.

Some 300,000 more Mississippi voters usually turn out for the presidential election than for the previous year's governor's race. There promises to be an even greater increase this year, since (1) the Democrat Barack Obama looks to turn out big numbers of young voters and black voters, which should help Musgrove, and (2) there was a drop-off in the vote in last November's matchup between Gov. Barbour and the Democrat John Arthur Eaves Jr. The Obama candidacy should also motivate some anti-Obama voters to head to the polls.

The unusual situation of having both U. S. Senate seats up for election at the same time will likely also increase the turnout. Cochran is opposed in his bid for a sixth term by Democratic former state Rep. Erik Fleming. Cochran's coat-tails can be expected to help Wicker, as will Barbour's formidable organization.

If Sen. John McCain should pick a Southerner as his vice-presidential running mate, that would also benefit the entire GOP ticket in Mississippi.

Five Black U. S. Senators In History

"... the hard reality is that Mississippi has never elected an African-American candidate to statewide office."

While that's true of modern times, Blanche K. Bruce, a Republican from Bolivar County, was the first black person ever to serve a full term as U. S. senator, 1875-1881. Born into slavery in Virginia, Bruce became a prosperous landowner in the Mississippi Delta during the post-Civil War Reconstruction era.

The first black member of Congress was another Mississippian, Hiram Revels, who filled an unexpired term in the U. S. Senate, 1870-1871. Revels, a Republican, was a North Carolina-born minister, educator, and politician from Natchez.

The other black Republican U. S. senator was Edward Brooke, who represented Massachusetts, 1967-1979. The only two black Democratic senators, ironically, held the same Illinois seat. Carol Moseley Braun served from 1993 to 1999, and Barack Obama has served from 2005 to the present. Moseley Braun and Obama, moreover, are both from Chicago.

This fall's election contests in Mississippi show many signs of generating much excitement.


[1] The Mississippi Constitution mandates that, in order to win a statewide office, a candidate must (1) get 50-plus percent of the vote, AND (2) carry a majority of the state House districts; otherwise, in the following January, the state House chooses between the top two vote-getters. If Evers had topped either the 1971 or the 1983 governor's race without meeting both requirements, he very likely would have filed suit against the constitutional provision.


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