March 6, 2018 11:17:06 AM
OXFORD -- The April departure from the U.S. Senate of the man who broke the Democratic Party's lock on federal offices from Mississippi opens the door to a doozy of a summer and fall.
When Thad Cochran was first elected to the U.S. House 45 years ago, he was a lonely dude. He was the lone Republican in the delegation. As he leaves, there's only one Democrat, District 2 U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson.
High drama now impends for the state GOP.
· Both Senate seats will be filled by state voters on Nov. 6. Republicans, naturally, want to keep both.
· The person chosen that day (or in a runoff) for Cochran's seat will serve the two years remaining on the senior senator's term. Because it is a special election, there will be no primaries and ballots will not show a party affiliation.
· The second contest will be the regularly scheduled partisan election. U.S. Sen Roger Wicker is seeking a second, full six-year term. That contest will have party primaries and the deadline for filing has passed.
Last week's announcement from Cochran's office was superbly timed to put state Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Ellisville, in a pickle.
McDaniel, who had filed to challenge Wicker, is not beloved (to say the last) by the Republican establishment. He faces a choice, now, of sticking with Plan A and taking on Wicker and a third candidate on June 5, or withdrawing in favor of Plan B, seeking the balance of Cochran's term.
McDaniel had contemplated the possibility of a Cochran exit and said he would choose his option carefully. That brought a response from the state's top Republican, Gov. Phil Bryant, who labeled McDaniel an opportunist as opposed to a person interested in public service.
At some point, probably shortly after April 1, Bryant will appoint someone to serve in Cochran's post until the special election. Anyone who meets the requirements -- state resident, U.S. citizen and 30 years or older -- can be chosen. It won't be McDaniel, but otherwise the field is open. Bryant could even appoint himself, although most observers think that's not likely.
It does matter, though, because already being in office would be a boost when special election day arrives.
One big possibilities for appointment is Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, but his hat has been tilted toward succeeding Bryant. Another is Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, but his hat has been tilted toward succeeding Reeves. It's high drama. The governor's appointment calendar will stay full until he decides.
What about Democrats when election day comes? Any chance?
One formidable candidate, former U.S. Rep. Mike Espy, who served as President Clinton's Secretary of Agriculture says he will be in the special election.
Otherwise, the only hope for Democrats, notoriously disorganized in Mississippi, would be a repeat of last year's Alabama sequence if McDaniel opts to continue his challenge of Wicker.
Remember? Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions resigned to serve as attorney general. President Trump endorsed a Republican warhorse, Luther Strange, who was defeated by the more rebellious Judge Roy Moore, an outcome celebrated by McDaniel. But that set up the contest between Moore and Doug Jones, a Democrat. Jones won, meaning one of the most conservative states in the Union replaced a Republican with a Democrat.
In Mississippi, state Rep. Omeria Scott, D-Laurel, state Rep. David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis, and four political unknowns have seized upon that script and the winner of their primary will face the Republican nominee.
Implicit is that Scott or Baria, who said he has raised $250 so far, would have little chance against Wicker. But in Alabama a coalition of black voters and the few white Democrats beat more and a similar coalition could be enough to defeat McDaniel in Mississippi.
What about McDaniel? What a guy. A button pusher "itching for a fight." He made the big time by actually polling more votes than Cochran in primary voting four years ago, but then lost to the senior senator in a runoff.
His brand is rally around the (state) flag, true conservative. No immigrants. Less federal spending (although he would represent a state where our neighbors, via Congress, provide $3 for every $1 our economy generates). He's pro-Trump (even though Trump has endorsed Wicker) and his message resonates in this state.
With the timing of Cochran's exit, though, the establishment Republicans may have boxed him out, or so they hope.
High drama, indeed.
Mississippi has been sent two Republicans to the Senate since 1988 and likely will well into the future, but at least picking them has become more interesting.
Charlie Mitchell is an associate dean of journalism at the University of Mississippi. Email reaches him at [email protected]