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Supreme Court affirms November 4 U.S. Senate showdown

The election to fill the seat of retired U.S. Sen. Trent Lott will take place November 4. The Mississippi Supreme Court handed down its decision February 6 after more than a month of legal wrangling between Gov. Haley Barbour and Attorney General Jim Hood.

Barbour originally set the election date for November after he received Lott’s official resignation last December. Hood had argued that the election, according to state law, had to be held within 90 days of the seat being vacated and had filed court papers in Hinds County Circuit Court seeking to set the election for March 19. Circuit Court Judge Bobby DeLaughter, after hearing arguments from attorneys for Barbour and Hood, ruled last month that the statute was clear enough for the election to he held on or before March 19.

Barbour appealed to the state Supreme Court, which said the law was unclear on how to handle a Senate vacancy that fell between a state general election and an upcoming congressional or presidential election, and ruled that Barbour’s original proclamation that the election be held in November would stand.

Now, the race is on.

On the trail

Shortly after Lott resigned, Barbour appointed Roger Wicker, who at the time represented Mississippi’s First Congressional District in the House of Representatives, to temporarily fill the void.

Wicker, a Republican from Tupelo, will face in the election former governor Ronnie Musgrove and former congressman Ronnie Shows, both Democrats.

As to who might benefit the most from the Court’s ruling, Morgan Baldwin, a political consultant in Tupelo, says the voters are the biggest winners.

“It gives enough time for people to get to know the candidates and where they stand on the issues,” Baldwin said.

Baldwin is not affiliated with any of the candidates, but said if he were, he would have preferred the November election date, especially if he were working for the incumbent, in this case Wicker.

“Wicker has gotten more media attention, he’s the incumbent, he’s the selection of the governor, and that creates an advantage,” Baldwin said. “That’s a lot of ground for Musgrove and Shows to make up.”

Musgrove camp: ‘Bad news’

Musgrove’s campaign released a statement February 6 bemoaning Barbour’s attempt to “anoint” Wicker as Mississippi’s next U.S. senator and said the tactic usurps the rights of the voters to elect one.

The statement called the ruling “bad news.”

“ … Mississippi will be stuck for another nine months with the same type of Washington nonsense from Roger Wicker.”

‘It helps me,’ Shows says

Shows was optimistic about what a November election could do for his chances of winning.

“I’m pleased,” he said. “It helps me. A 90-day race would have been difficult. Now I have nine months to get everything together.”

Record African-American turnout?

Marty Wiseman, director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University, said there is one wildcard in Mississippi’s Senate race: The presidential election.

“If Barack Obama gets on the presidential ticket, and the voter turnout is as big as expected, that could heavily favor the Democratic (Senate) candidates,” Wiseman said, alluding to Mississippi’s large African-American population, specifically in the Delta, and its tendency to vote Democrat. “That’s the elephant in the room.”

South Mississippi challenge

Another factor that could hurt Wicker’s candidacy is his relative anonymity in South Mississippi. “He’s had a safe seat (in the First Congressional District) in North Mississippi, and now he’s going to have to count on a heavy Republican turnout in South Mississippi,” Wiseman said. “He’s going to have to be a quick study on issues in South Mississippi. Shows is strong in South Mississippi, and Musgrove has displayed vote-getting power before across the state.”

The Secretary of State’s Office said it is preparing for the Senate special election, which will be held in conjunction with the general election scheduled for November 4. The primary election scheduled for March 11 will not be affected by the Supreme Court decision.

Contact MBJ staff writer Clay Chandler at clay.chandler@ msbusiness.com .

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