Even in an election year that hardly could be worse for Republicans, nobody expected they would be at risk of losing a Senate seat in Mississippi.
The state hasn’t elected a Democratic senator since John Stennis’ re-election in 1982, nor has it voted for a Democratic White House candidate in seven presidential elections.
But this year, things began to change when a Democrat won a vacant House seat in a special election and the party tagged the Senate contest as one to watch. With less than two weeks to go before the Nov. 4 election, the race between Republican incumbent Sen. Roger Wicker and his Democratic rival, former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, is a nail-biter.
That’s largely because of two factors: a historic economic meltdown that many blame on President Bush and record turnout expected among Mississippi’s black population, 37 percent of the state, on behalf of Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama.
Wicker’s still the favorite. Gov. Haley Barbour, who appointed Wicker last year to fill the seat vacated by retired Sen. Trent Lott, signaled his confidence Wednesday when he left the state to campaign with GOP presidential hopeful John McCain.
Ideology trumps party labels in Mississippi, where the Confederate flag is still part of the state flag.
“Everybody’s conservative in Mississippi. It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white, Republican or Democrat, if you’re trying to stretch some money for 30 to 31 days in a month,” said Marty Wiseman, director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University.
That doesn’t mean Wicker can breathe easy.
“Wicker doesn’t have a deep incumbency,” Tougaloo College political scientist Steve Rozman said. “Wicker also is not your most dynamic candidate. He voted with Bush a whole lot, although in this state I don’t know if it makes that much of a difference.”