Wicker must win big in 1st District to beat Musgrove

The matchup between Roger Wicker and Ronnie Musgrove is the first competitive U.S. Senate race in Mississippi in 20 years. This is a state that changes senators very rarely; we’d had only two transitions in the last 65 years before Gov. Haley Barbour appointed Wicker last Dec. 31 to replace Trent Lott.

The first transition came in 1978, when Thad Cochran won the seat vacated by Jim Eastland, who had served 35 years. The second was in 1988, when John Stennis – in office since 1947 – retired and Lott was elected to replace him.

So this one’s historic. Even though Wicker is the incumbent by appointment, it’s still essentially an open seat since the voters haven’t yet spoken. Polls and pundits are calling the race a toss-up at this stage, which is a surprise, given the recent history of Republican dominance in statewide federal elections here.

But we all know this year is different for a variety of reasons, as already demonstrated in Democrat Travis Childers’ upset win in the 1st Congressional District special election. The economy, the wars, health care and other national issues are part of the mix in Republican vulnerability. But just as there were unique local circumstances in Childers’ win, so too are there in the Wicker-Musgrove battle.

In spite of more than seven months in the Senate, Wicker is still not as well known statewide as Musgrove, who held statewide office for eight years -four years as lieutenant governor and then another four as governor. We forget up here in the 1st District, where we’ve heard about and seen Wicker regularly for 14 years, that he’s had minimal media and personal exposure in other parts of the state during all but a few months of that time.

Of course there are downsides to being well known, and Musgrove certainly has his detractors. But on balance, the name ID is a positive for him. Wicker has had to spend much of his time and money just getting people outside the 1st District to know who he is.

The other element that raises Musgrove’s chances to pull off a Democratic upset in a Republican stronghold is the anticipated huge turnout of black voters for Barack Obama, who would be expected to vote overwhelmingly for Musgrove.

Wicker, on the other hand, will have the entire Republican apparatus statewide working diligently for him. Wicker’s election is top priority for Barbour, Senate colleague Cochran and every other Republican leader in the state. By contrast, Greg Davis’ rematch with Childers in the 1st District is likely to be relatively low on the GOP radar. No one will want to waste resources or manpower on Davis’ behalf that could go to Wicker – especially given the widespread feeling that Davis blew his chance with a poorly conceived and badly run campaign back in the spring.

So what does Wicker need to do to win? A look at that 1988 race between Lott and Wayne Dowdy, both incumbent congressmen at the time, is instructive.

Lott, who represented the coastal 5th District, won the election by 74,000 votes over Dowdy, who represented the 4th District in southwest Mississippi. That entire margin of victory -plus an additional 4,000 votes – came in the counties of Lott’s 5th District. He got 69 percent of the vote there, while Dowdy actually lost his own district.

The first thing Wicker has to do is carry the 1st District, and carry it big. In 1988, Lott and Dowdy basically split the rest of the state 50-50. But Lott had a higher national profile than Wicker, having been minority whip in the House and a visible member of Ronald Reagan’s team, and Dowdy did not enjoy Musgrove’s statewide name recognition. Additionally, there was no pull for black voters at the top of the ticket – Michael Dukakis, the Democratic nominee that year, didn’t exactly excite them.

All these factors helped Lott outside his home base. Wicker will face more daunting challenges, so it is even more important that he get a huge 1st District margin – including a massive turnout in DeSoto County – as well as piling up votes in populous Republican strongholds like Rankin County scattered around the state.

Musgrove, conversely, must do well among his base of black voters in the Delta and Hinds County, winning overwhelmingly there and in the Mississippi River counties to the southwest.

If each does as he hopes in those places, the race could very well be decided on whether Wicker can build a sizable margin on the Gulf Coast. Which explains, at least in part, why he has made dozens of trips there since becoming a senator.

Someone could eventually run away with this thing, but don’t count on it. This rare event has the look of a down-to-the-wire donnybrook.

Lloyd Gray is editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at 678-1579 or lloyd.gray@djournal.com.