The race for Congress in Mississippi’s Second District has been heralded as “the one to watch,” pitting Republican Clinton B. LeSueur of Greenville against incumbent U.S. Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, a Democrat from Bolton.
In 2002, LeSueur won 44% of the vote against Thompson, who took office after winning a special election in 1993, and since then has represented the second district, which stretches from Jefferson County to Tunica County, and includes a predominantly black and impoverished Delta region.
“We are very enthusiastic about Clinton LeSueur in the Second Congressional District race against incumbent Bennie Thompson, and Mike Lott, who is making a very spirited race in the Fourth Congressional District against incumbent Gene Taylor,” said Mississippi Republican Party chair Jim Herring. “Both are underdogs, but we feel if we can get out a heavy vote for (President George W.) Bush, the more it will help Bush and them.”
Hayes Dent, managing partner of Southern Strategy Group of Mississippi, who became the Delta Regional Authority’s first executive director after losing to Thompson in 1993, said the Delta “is in worse shape today than it was then.”
“I’m not naïve enough to think that’s all Bennie Thompson’s fault, but Bennie has been more concerned with the race issue rather than the progress of his constituency,” he said. “There’s been too much of a focus on issues that, at the end of the day, don’t have a positive effect on the economic well-being of the region.”
Marty Wiseman, Ph.D., executive director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University, called the Second District race “profoundly interesting to watch.”
“Many people are speculating that the percentage of the vote LeSueur got last time is all he can get,” he said. “He may be locked at that level. There’s a perpetual anti-Bennie vote of that size, and when you throw in a few disaffected African-American voters who are willing to vote Republican, you’ve got a base that’s stuck at that level. I’m not saying if it’s true or not, but the election will tell the tale.”
Because of the 2000 Census results, nearly 200,000 voters were added to the Second Congressional District, one of the poorest in the nation. As a result of the redrawn lines, the black voting age population was reduced by 2% to 59%. “A group on the periphery, both white and black, never voted for Bennie so there’s no loyalty to the incumbent except maybe knowing about him,” said Wiseman.
“It’s taken a very severely gerrymandered district to keep Bennie in power,” observed Dent. “The talk in the region is that Clinton LeSueur has done a very good job this time of going into African-American churches throughout the region and cultivating support while gaining support in the white community.”
Voter turnout is key, said James D. Stewart, Ph.D., a political science professor for Mississippi College.
“If Bush receives a high turnout, LeSueur will benefit, and it is possible that he could pull a larger percentage of the vote,” he said. “If the Democratic and black turnout is depressed this year, it would be theoretically possible for LeSueur to win. At this point, look for a surprise visit by a big-hitter in either party to come in to rally the voters. Not likely this late in the game, but it could happen.”
“It’s tight. I don’t think you’ll find Bennie taking LeSueur for granted this time,” said Wiseman. “He’s been much more evident campaigning in the district this time. That last election may have served to simply wake up Bennie Thompson.”
In the Fourth District
Mike Lott of Petal, former Teacher of the Year, school administrator, small business owner and state representative, is challenging incumbent Gene Taylor (D-Bay St. Louis), a former and highly honored member of the U.S. Coast Guard who has represented the Fourth Congressional District since 1989.
Taylor has said that voters are concerned about the bloated national deficit, and he pledged to continue “to represent South Mississippi in Washington, not represent Washington in South Mississippi,” while Lott believes voters are more concerned about taxes and pointed out that the fourth congressional district “voted heavily for President Bush and should elect a congressman who will support him.”
“Mike Lott is virtually invisible at this point,” said Joe Parker, Ph.D., a Southern Miss political science professor.
“I don’t think he’s got any money. On the six o’clock news, you’d think you’d see an ad now and then, but I never do. Incumbents are virtually unbeatable unless they do something really dumb. Unlike most incumbents, Gene Taylor doesn’t have a district that’s perfectly drawn for him, but he has adjusted to the district. He’s voted with Democrats about 52% of the time and Republicans about 48%; one year it was 50-50. He has the ability to ‘homestyle,’ such as shaking hands at Wal-Mart and talking to high school students and explaining the votes they didn’t like in such a way that they respect his integrity. I think he’s mastered it. I thought sooner or later they’d pick him off, but I think he’s adjusted very well.”
Because the practice of Democratic and Republican congressional campaign committees is to target vulnerable seats — those won with less than 55% or lost by more than 45% — there are no concentrated efforts to unseat Taylor, said Parker.
“I can see Gene Taylor getting 60% plus,” said Wiseman. “He’s a loyal son of the Coast, and is viewed that way. They don’t generally follow the normal political prescriptions. Of course, many times Gene Taylor will surprise you, voting with Republicans or taking a different direction. But his unique approach seems to fit his unique constituency.”
Dent said Taylor “has coasted by on the power of incumbency, which in Washington is incredibly strong,” he said. “Mike Lott is an emerging star in the Republican Party and has run a good race. But Gene has a huge name ID and Mike doesn’t. And Mike hasn’t raised as much money as he needed to. In the days before the election, Mike, who is a very intelligent legislator and would make a very good conservative Republican member of Congress, needs to really tie himself to the Bush Administration and hope to ride the strong coattails of Bush’s 60% plus vote in the Fourth District.”
Stewart said “anyone with the Lott last name has a name recognition advantage, but is that translates into larger vote counts we will have to see.”
The rest of the races
In the First Congressional District, Reform Party candidate Barbara Dale Washer is challenging five-term incumbent Roger F. Wicker (R-Tupelo).
In Mississippi’s Third District, independent candidate Jim Giles and Reform Party candidate Lamonica L. Magee are challenging Republican incumbent Chip Pickering, who beat fellow incumbent Ronnie Shows in a hotly contested race in 2002, when their districts were combined to reflect the state’s declining population.
At press time, Mississippi Democratic Party chair Wayne Dowdy and Jackson State University political science professor Leslie McLemore had not returned calls for this article.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at email@example.com.