Continuing a political fight playing out over radio and television airwaves, the chambers of the Mississippi Supreme Court the week before last became the latest arena in which Senate candidates Roger Wicker, a Republican, and former Democratic governor Ronnie Musgrove slugged it out.
The issue was the ballot on which the candidates’ names will appear. Republican Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann had placed the election at the bottom of the ballot, putting it there because it was a special election to replace the retired Sen. Trent Lott. Gov. Haley Barbour appointed Wicker last December to fill Lott’s seat until the general election.
Trudy Berger, an election commissioner in Pike County, filed suit, saying the race was too important not to be at the top of the ballot. After a hearing in Hinds County Circuit Court, judge Tomie Green sided with Berger and ordered the race to appear just beneath the presidential race, near the top of the ballot. In her order, Green called Hosemann’s ballot “a ball of confusion.” Hosemann and his attorneys appealed to the state Supreme Court. That court affirmed Green’s order, so the race is now at the top of absentee ballots that Hosemann began distributing last week. The general election is November 4.
“I believe that the real winners in this case will be the tens and perhaps hundreds of thousands of Mississippi voters who will have the opportunity to vote a logical and lawful ballot,” Berger said in a prepared statement after the court’s ruling.
“The Mississippi Supreme Court could not be clearer. Races for federal office are required to be at the top of the ballot,” Musgrove said in a release his campaign issued.
Wicker campaign spokesman Ryan Annison said the interim senator is focusing on jobs, the economy and rising energy costs, not ballot placement.
‘It’s never been a big deal’
“It’s never been a big deal,” Annison said. “It’s not like they’re splitting us up. As long as Roger Wicker and Ronnie Musgrove’s names are next to each other, that’s all that matters.”
Barbour, who backed Hosemann’s original ballot, issued a short response to the state Supreme Court’s order.
“The Supreme Court has spoken; so be it,” a release from his office read.
This is the latest issue to arise between the two candidates. Their race has become heated, with new accusations lobbed by each camp almost daily. Until now, the most prominent issue has been Wicker’s assertion that Musgrove presided over a job drain in the state. Musgrove has countered that Mississippi’s unemployment rate was lower when he was governor than it is now.
‘Tooth and nail’
“(The ballot issue) is symptomatic of today’s campaigns,” said Marty Wiseman, director of the Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University. “Everything is so close, we are so evenly divided, that both sides are going to fight each other tooth and nail over the smallest of things. It takes very little to turn an election from a close loss into a close win.
“And because everything politically is so tightly wound, you’ve got this roving band of campaign staffers (from both camps) and they’ve become attuned to fighting over every issue that this became bigger, honestly, than it really should have been.”
If the Senate race helps anybody, it will be Musgrove, Wiseman said.
“It shortens the distance physically from him and (Democratic presidential candidate Barack) Obama,” he said.
But there is a chance that could backfire.
“Musgrove is in a position to where he has to make two worlds happy,” Wiseman said. “One is the Democratic Obama supporters, and so far he has tried to not completely align himself with that group. The other is the yellow-dog Democrats whose beliefs are not as liberal as Obama’s. Personally, I think (Musgrove) should embrace the Obama connection. Either way, he is in a position now that he has to satisfy two completely different pools of voters, and that is nearly impossible.”
Contact MBJ staff writer Clay Chandler at clay.chandler@ msbusiness.com .