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Mississippi primaries trim field for GOP-held Senate seat


Emily Wagster Pettus/The Associated Press



JACKSON -- Mississippi is holding party primaries Tuesday for a U.S. Senate seat held since 2007 by Republican Roger Wicker, who was endorsed months ago by President Donald Trump. 


It is a heavily Republican state that last had a Democrat in the Senate in January 1989, when John C. Stennis retired. 


Wicker served nearly 13 years in the U.S. House before then-Gov. Haley Barbour appointed him to the Senate when fellow Republican Trent Lott resigned. Wicker, of Tupelo, faces one primary challenger who is running a low-budget campaign, business owner Richard Boyanton of Diamondhead. 


"President Trump and I need your help to enact his America first policies and make America great again," Wicker said in a recent fundraising email. 


Six candidates are in the Democratic primary, including state Reps. David Baria and Omeria Scott, and venture capitalist Howard Sherman, who is the husband of actress Sela Ward. The primary could go to a June 26 runoff. 


Baria, of Bay St. Louis, is an attorney and served one term in the state Senate before being elected in 2011 to the Republican-led Mississippi House, where he's now the Democratic leader. He criticizes Republicans for cutting taxes and refusing to expand Medicaid. 


"Apparently we in Mississippi have decided that we don't want to invest in ourselves anymore. We would rather give corporate tax cuts to out-of-state corporations," Baria said at a recent fundraiser. "I think people in Mississippi understand it's wrong." 


Scott, who runs a soul food restaurant in Laurel, said in an interview that Mississippi needs to spend more state and federal money on education, health care and highways. 


"Voters want the people who represent them to go to work every day and understand that their grandchildren ... are going to leave Mississippi if there is no opportunity," Scott said. 


Sherman has acknowledged he was a registered Republican in California, and that he donated $5,000 to Wicker in 2017, when it appeared Wicker would be challenged this year by tea party-backed state Sen. Chris McDaniel, who nearly unseated Mississippi's senior senator, Thad Cochran in a bitter 2014 Republican primary. 


Sherman and Ward raised their two children in Los Angeles, where he grew up, and the couple now lives near her hometown of Meridian, Mississippi. Sherman said he hopes to attract votes from "moderate businessmen." 


"Businessmen who are like, 'I've had it with Trump. OK, maybe the tax cut was good for me, but it violates my moral compass so badly that if I had somebody else I could be comfortable with, I'm willing to do that,'" Sherman said last month in Hattiesburg. 


In the race for the seat now held by Wicker, the Reform Party's Shawn O'Hara and Libertarian Danny Bedwell will also be on the ballot in November. 


Campaign finance records show Sherman donated $5,000 to Wicker in 2017. Sherman said he did it because it appeared Wicker would be challenged this year. 


McDaniel initially announced he would run against Wicker this year. But after 80-year-old Cochran resigned from the Senate amid health concerns in April, McDaniel said he would challenge Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith in a Nov. 6 special election. 


Republican Gov. Phil Bryant appointed Hyde-Smith, the state agriculture commissioner, to temporarily succeed Cochran. There are no primaries for the special election. Although party labels won't appear on the ballot, candidates are telling voters their affiliation. Others who qualified to run are Democrat Mike Espy, who was President Bill Clinton's first agriculture secretary, and Democrat Tobey Bartee, a former Gautier city councilman.




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