Few people would have picked Gregg Harper to face Charlie Ross in the runoff in the Mississippi 3rd Congressional District race. However, that’s exactly where we are. In a primary runoff that will essentially decide the holder of the seat come November in one of the most Republican districts in the US, this race has not been marred by the rancor that the 7-way primary was. David Landrum and John Rounsaville were certainly the instigators of a lot of the negativity in this race and voters seemingly penalized both for it.

Let’s look at both of the remaining candidates.

Charlie Ross

Charlie finished first in the primary with 21,999 votes or 33% in a seven contestant race. Since the primary, he has not made any noticable mistakes. His paid and earned media has been good and continues to soften his image considerably. The Aaron Rice ad has gotten particular positive attention.

He has garnered endorsements from the Clarion Ledger, the Associated General Contractors, Associated Builders and Contractors, the MS Hospitality and Restaurant Association, Club for Growth, Minuteman Founder Jim Gilchrest, and most recently the National Rifle Association.

Gregg Harper

Gregg finished second in the primary with 18,657 or 28% of the vote. Harper has slowly but steadily gained momentum and is basing his campaign on personal connections as a longtime Republican Party activist. Though he’s been outspent, his ads are uniformly positive as he is pushing a “servant leader” message.

He has been endorsed by party stalwart Billy Mounger, the Madison County Journal, Rev. Don Wildmon, local columnist Matt Friedeman, the MS Chiropractic Association, former candidate David Landrum (who had 26% of the primary vote), Former US Senator Trent Lott, State Senator Lee Yancey and others.

By the numbers

In evaluating the numbers in this race, it is obvious that turnout will be down significantly from the primary. 38% of the vote went to candidates no longer in the race. Another interesting observation is the relative strength of the candidates. It gives a blueprint to each candidate for what they must do to win on Tuesday.

Ross was strong throughout the district. His lowest vote percentage in any county in the seven man race was 21% (Franklin County). He was edged by Harper (head to head) by just under 1200 combined votes in the crucial counties of Rankin, Lauderdale and Pike.

Harper on the other hand had some low vote totals in some counties in the primary. Harper had 8% in Adams, 16% in Covington, 16% in Jeff Davis, 7% in Jones, 12% in Marion, 8% in Noxubee, 10% in Oktibbeha, and 10% in Wilkinson. Though there aren’t huge amounts of votes in those places, Harper has to establish himself better in these places in the runoff.

Ross’ strategy will be to keep it close in places where Harper will focus his efforts (Rankin, Lauderdale and Pike) and offset that advantage in similar sized population centers where Ross did well last time (Madison & Hinds). Ross can afford to lose those big counties that Harper is expected to win, but he can’t get blown out there. If the cumulative vote totals for Harper in these three counties exceeds 2000 votes, Harper’s got a shot. If Ross keeps it close or actually wins one of these three counties, I don’t see how Harper can win when all the votes are tallied.

Harper on the other hand has to run up the score in his core areas and he has to do lots better in the lesser populated areas of the district. If he does well where the higher concentration of votes are, but flops in the rest of the district, it is likely that the smaller areas will cumulatively catch up.

In the end, Harper’s voters are motivated, his momentum is gaining and this race is going to be close. Though not all Landrum voters will switch to Harper, that endorsement will mean something. The money advantage and the primary numbers say Ross should win, but factor in Harper’s likeability, voter motivation, and some lingering anti-Charlie sentiment from the 2007 Lt. Governor’s race, and the fact that 38% of the electorate will be looking for a new candidate to vote for and it’s anyone’s bet. I think this is a five point race that could go either way.