June 22, 2018 10:16:22 AM
Thursday afternoon, David Baria arrived in Columbus for a campaign event at the Lowndes County Courthouse. It was supposed to have been an outdoor event with a catfish lunch, but rain forced the group into the room where the board of supervisors holds its regular meetings.
The room was just large enough to accommodate the 30 or so people who gathered to support Baria, who is locked in a tight Democratic primary run-off with Howard Sherman for the right to take on incumbent U.S. Senator Roger Wicker in November.
As numbers go, it was a small gathering. Just about everyone had a title of some sort. State representatives Kabir Karriem of Columbus and Cheikh Taylor of Starkville served as co-hosts and were joined by Columbus Mayor Robert Smith, city councilmen Fredrick Jackson and Stephen Jones, supervisors Leroy Brooks and Jeff Smith, NAACP leaders LaVonne Harris of Columbus and Chris Taylor on Starkville, Democratic National Committeeman Wil Colom and former state representative Tyrone Ellis.
The make-up of the audience was intentional and provides a clear indication of Baria's strategy not only in his race against Sherman, widely perceived as a Johnny-come-lately to both the state and the Democratic Party, but in the November and the general election.
Baria, who grew up in Moss Point and has represented the Bay St. Louis area in the State House since 2012, checks all the boxes you would expect to find in a Democratic nominee. Most notably, he appears to be a white candidate who has gained the trust of his black peers in Jackson -- with one notable exception.
In 2016, Baria, just one of 10 whites in the 47-member Democratic delegation in Jackson, was chosen as the minority leader in the House, a sure sign of his ability to cross racial lines to gain support.
After finishing second to Sherman by about 700 votes in the June 5 primary, a bit of intrigue was thrust into the run-off when Omeira Scott of Laurel, who finished third in the primary race, unexpectedly endorsed Sherman. She was the lone member of the state's black legislative caucus to come out in support of Sherman.
Since then, the rest of the state's black leadership has rallied around Baria. U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson announced he was returning a campaign donation from Sherman as a show of support of Baria.
Since the run-off, Baria's strategy has been built on making connections with the state Democratic party, which is struggled to regain its footing after a disastrous governor's race in 2015 when a virtually unknown truck driver from Jackson gained the party's nomination over established candidates. It was a humiliating turn of events for the party.
That event served as a wake-up call and Democrats have been quietly working to become a cohesive force since then. It's not over yet, as the emergence of Sherman indicates. The party has yet to exert its influence in determining who will -- and who will not -- carry its banner.
Baria insists that the party is being unified. That unification he said will be evident this fall in the state's two U.S. Senate races. He believes that Wicker is vulnerable and that Mike Espy, who is running for the seat vacated by Thad Cochran, has a real chance to win.
The possibility that in November Mississippi could send two Democrats to the Senate is still the longest of long shots, of course. Even so, Democrats believe that both seats are in play.
Baria said a rebuilt, reinvigorated and disciplined state Democratic Party will make an impact in this year's election and in 2019 at the state level, where the Democrats hope to break the GOP stranglehold on state-wide offices, including both houses of the Legislature, where Republicans hold super-majorities, and the governor's office.
The enthusiasm gap, Baria believes, favors the Democrats. Regular Mississippians, he says, are sick of the GOP's inability to address major issues -- health care, infrastructure, education. From his point of view, the GOP is the party of tax cuts to big corporations and little else. Baria called the Trump administration as "slow-motion train wreck," and said it will only get worse between now and November. With Wicker moving closer and closer to Trump, the contest in November is likely to be a referendum on Trump. How much support for Trump will have eroded by then? Will it be enough to allow the traditional alliance of black and progressive whites to pull off the upset? It is not beyond the realm of possibility, especially if the national Democratic Party believes the seat is in play and commits resources to the Democratic candidate, something it hasn't done in years.
If Baria is to capitalize on that, he must first defeat Sherman in Tuesday's run-off.
With a low turn-out expected, Baria is turning to established Democrats throughout the state to get the vote out. In relying on the state party's organization to push him over the top, Baria is betting on the establishment.
The outcome of the primary may reveal much about just how much progress has been made within the ranks of the party
It will probably be a winning strategy Tuesday.
November, of course, is a whole different matter.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]