By BOBBY HARRISON / Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – As opposing candidates, Alan Nunnelee and Claude Hartley might not have found much common ground during the 1994 special state Senate election, but they did agree on at least one thing – it was difficult to campaign during the Christmas holidays.
In 1994, after then-state Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Tupelo, won the 1st District U.S. House race, Gov. Kirk Fordice set a special Senate election for December.
The events this year are similar in many ways.
Nunnelee, who won the special election in 1994 to replace Wicker in the District 6 state Senate seat, won the 1st District U.S. House post on Tuesday by defeating incumbent Democratic Travis Childers of Booneville. Wicker has since moved on to the United States Senate.
Gov. Haley Barbour will have to call a special election to replace Nunnelee.
In 1994, nine candidates ran in the Thursday, Dec. 15, special election Fordice called to fill the Senate seat. Nunnelee and Hartley were the top two vote-getters and vied in a runoff 14 days later between Christmas and New Year’s.
“The mood of the nation was very similar in 1994,” Nunnelee recalled. “During the first election, people were still focused on national politics.”
But he said getting people to focus on the runoff during the holidays was difficult, a point reiterated by Hartley. “Nobody wanted to think about politics,” he said.
Nunnelee ended up winning the Dec. 29 runoff with 2,918 votes, or a little more than 57 percent. Despite the holidays, 210 more votes were cast in the runoff than in the first election.
But the 5,297 votes cast in the runoff was about half of what Nunnelee received about 11 months later when he ran unopposed for a full four-year term as the District 6 state senator.
Fordice set the early election date presumably to ensure that a District 6 senator was seated by the time the January 1995 session began.
But Nunnelee said that most likely will not be possible this year.
State law now requires a delay of three weeks – instead of two weeks, as in 1994 – between the first election and a runoff. A runoff occurs when no candidate obtains a majority vote. If there is a large field of candidates, as there was in 1994, a runoff is likely.
That would result in a new senator not being elected until January, after the session begins.
Barbour cannot set a date for the election until Nunnelee resigns. He said he will do that soon after the votes from this past Tuesday’s election are certified. That most likely will occur next week.
Nunnelee said he would be willing to try to time his resignation so that Barbour can set both the Senate special election and the Northern District Transportation Commission special election on the same date.
The Transportation Commission election would fill the vacancy created by last week’s death of incumbent Bill Minor of Holy Springs.
All of Senate District 6 is in the Northern Transportation District.
Nunnelee said having the elections together “makes sense just because of the costs of the election and because of voter fatigue. We have just got through a long election cycle. That would minimize voter fatigue.”
The only problem is that Barbour must call a special election to fill the Transportation Commission post within 15 days of the vacancy. So the clock is ticking. The special election for the Transportation Commission post must be held within 60 days of when the governor calls it.
The governor must provide 40 days notice of a special election to fill a legislative vacancy and must announce the election within 30 days of the vacancy.
If the certification process works out, Nunnelee said it is possible to have the two elections together.
He said he will discuss the issue with Barbour soon.
Dan Turner, a spokesman for Barbour, said it is too soon to speculate on when the governor might call the special elections.
In the meantime, both Tupelo City Council members Jonny Davis, who ran unsuccessfully against Nunnelee in 2007, and Mike Bryan have expressed interest in running for the Senate. Also, J.J. Jasper, an American Family Association radio host, and Mike Armour, Appalachian Regional Commission director, have expressed interest in the post. Businessman Doug Wright also has been mentioned as a potential candidate.
Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or firstname.lastname@example.org.