JACKSON – By anyone’s measuring stick, the once much-maligned Mississippi Democratic Party flexed its muscle last November during the statewide elections.

Democrats won seven of eight statewide offices. More importantly, despite considerable efforts by the Republican Party on the state and national level, the Democrats held their own in the Mississippi Legislature.

Going into the November general elections, the Republicans were talking about gaining control of the Senate and picking up seats in the House of Representatives. Instead, they lost one seat in the Senate. Democrats now have a 34-18 advantage. In the House, Republicans picked up two seats, but still trail Democrats 87 to 32 with three independents.

Despite losing the Governor’s Mansion to Republican Kirk Fordice, Mississippi Democrats still had much to crow about in 1995.

But now comes this year’s congressional elections, which are shaping up to be a dismal failure for the Democrats. Currently, three of Mississippi’s five U.S. House members are Democrats.

Bearing some major upsets, though, Republicans are primed to pick up at least one U.S. House seat in the November general election.

Chip Pickering, a former staffer for U.S. Sen. Trent Lott, is the favorite to win the District 3 seat being vacated by veteran Democrat G.V. “Sonny” Montgomery. While Pickering is a heavy favorite, the Democrats have a better chance in that race than they do in the 1st or 4th districts.

In the 3rd, Democrat John Eaves of Madison, and son of former gubernatorial candidate John Arthur Eaves, is expected to campaign hard and spend a substantial amount of money. The Eaves name, which is synonymous with Mississippi Populist politics, still carries some weight in the rural 3rd District, which includes Clay County.

While an Eaves victory might be considered not likely, but possible, it would be one of the biggest upsets in Mississippi history for the Democrat to win in the 1st or 4th.

In the 1st, which includes most of Northeast Mississippi, few give Holly Springs Rural Legal Services employee Henry Boyd Jr. much of a chance against incumbent Republican Roger Wicker of Tupelo. The same can be said for Democrat Kevin Antoine, a Hinds County planning director, who is running against incumbent Mike Parker in the 4th District.

Parker, who was first elected to Congress as a Democrat in 1988, switched to the Republican Party late last year. Last November, Democratic Party leaders admitted it was a priority to defeat Parker. It does not appear the Democrats were able to field a candidate to fulfill their plans for revenge.

But all is not lost for the Democrats.

The Democrats are expected to hold on to the Gulf Coast-dominated 5th District where Gene Taylor was elected in 1989. But Taylor will face a tough challenge from Republican Dennis Dollar of Gulfport, who served in the state Legislature in the 1970s and was an unsuccessful candidate for secretary of state.

In the 2nd District, Democrat Bennie Thompson, who was elected in a special election in 1993, will be challenged by Danny Covington of Vicksburg. The race will pit two black candidates against each other in the district that comprises most of the Mississippi Delta.

If conventional wisdom holds true, Mississippi will have more Republican congressmen than Democrats for the first time since Reconstruction. Wicker, Parker and Pickering would be the Republicans while Thompson and Taylor would be the Democrats. And Dollar probably stands more of a chance of upsetting Taylor than Boyd does of beating Wicker or Antoine does of defeating Parker.

Both Boyd and Antoine are black candidates in white-majority districts. Hopefully, the day is coming in Mississippi — and all of America — where we in the media cannot predict the success of a candidate based on his skin color.

Blacks have been voting for white candidates for a long time. Unfortunately , for us whites, most of us can count on one hand — if we even need a finger — the number of times we have voted for black candidates.

Unfortunately, though, the strength of Antoine and Boyd could be summed up by looking at the number of votes their received on April 2 in winning their Democratic runoffs. Less than 8,000 people voted in the Democratic runoff where Boyd defeated New Albany attorney Talmadge Littlejohn, while about 16,500 voted in the Democratic primary where Antoine defeated Jackson City Council member Margaret Barrett. On the other hand, more than 42,000 voted in the Republican primary where Pickering defeated Meridian businessman Bill Crawford.

In other words, people in the 3rd District believed they had a reason to go to the polls and vote in the Republican primary. The candidates have drawing power. The candidates in the 1st and 4th did not.

Obviously, much more money was spent by the two Republicans in the 3rd than the Democrats spent in the 1st and 4th. But in politics, money talks. And in November, look for Republican incumbents and challengers to have money. On the other hand, raising money will be a problem for at least two of the Democrats — Antoine and Boyd.

And in politics, money talks.

Bobby Harrison is chief of the Daily Journal’s Capitol Bureau.

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