Mississippi rarely changes U.S. senators. Until Trent Lott unexpectedly stepped down late last year, only four men had filled the state's two Senate seats in the last 61 years.
This year's race between Republican Roger Wicker, appointed by Gov. Haley Barbour to fill Lott's seat until a special election, and Democratic former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove may well be the most significant contest of this political generation in Mississippi. Whoever wins is likely to hold the seat for many years to come.
The race is highly competitive -unlike the other regular election contest between Sen. Thad Cochran, a Republican seeking his sixth term, and Democrat Erik Fleming of Jackson. Cochran is the heavy favorite in that one.
Yet while the Cochran-Fleming race will be near the top of the Nov. 4 ballot, just below the presidential contest, there's a chance the Wicker-Musgrove race will be at the bottom below local races. The reason: The latter is a special election, and there's some ambiguity in the law about where it should fall on the ballot.
The state Election Commission – consisting of Gov. Haley Barbour, Attorney General Jim Hood and Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann will make the decision. Hood, citing precedent, said the Wicker-Musgrove race should follow the Cochran-Fleming matchup on the ballot. They're both U.S. Senate races, after all, and logically should be grouped together near the top of the ballot and before local elections. Hosemann, the state's chief elections officer, said last week he's still studying the matter.
If the law allows any latitude at all, the decision ought to be a no-brainer. The most important race other than the presidency to be voted on by Mississippians that day should be in the most prominent place possible on the ballot. The only plausible reason for anyone to want it near the bottom is the hope that some voters will overlook it or just not take the time to finish their ballot.
Musgrove has already made it clear that he wants it near the top. Wicker has not said to this point, but a campaign spokesman has downplayed the issue's importance and questioned why Musgrove is concerned about it. Surely the Wicker camp wants the race to be as prominently displayed as possible, given its historic nature.
Since it's a special election, neither candidate's party affiliation will be listed on the ballot, unlike the Cochran-Fleming race. The law is clear on that.
If the law is open-ended on the ballot location, any decision other than to give the special election high-on-the-ballot prominence will be hard to explain or defend.