Republican operatives for weeks have quietly been working to flip the seat formerly held by Democratic Sen. Bill Stone, the Senate minority leader who resigned earlier this year for a job at a local utility company.
Tuesday’s runoff special election between Sharon Gipson of Holly Springs and Neil Whatley of Potts Camp will decide whether Republicans will grow their three-fifths supermajority in the Senate.
Special legislative election candidates do not officially declare party affiliation in accordance with state law. When asked by the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal last month which party the candidates would caucus with if elected, Gipson said she would vote with the Democrats.
Whaley, however, hadn’t publicly stated whether he’d vote with Democrats or Republicans. But in an interview with Mississippi Today on Monday, Whaley inferred he would vote with Republicans.
“I haven’t decided 100 percent yet,” Whaley said. “I’ve got a tendency, you know, which way I lean, but I’d rather not say until after tomorrow.”
When asked about a $250 campaign contribution from the Marshall County Republican Club, Whaley said, “That might tell you all you need to know.”
Whaley, a 29-year-old cattleman and small business owner from Potts Camp, is the choice of the Republican Party, earning endorsements from the Marshall County Republican Club, the Mississippi Federation of Republican Women, the National Rifle Association and other Republican-focused groups.
Justin Brassel, Republican Sen. Roger Wicker’s campaign manager, has coordinated Whaley’s campaign. Gov. Phil Bryant’s political action committee, which he established in early 2017 as a depository for his leftover cash on hand, donated $1,000 to Whaley’s campaign.
Whaley has attracted just shy of $10,000 in donations from Jackson-based political action committees which typically donate to Republican legislative candidates. The Mississippi Federation of Republican Women hosted a phone bank for Whaley at the Mississippi GOP headquarters on Monday.
The seat in question, Senate District 10, was redrawn by the Legislature in 2012 for a Republican to win as leaders banked on former Sen. Steve Hale to switch parties. Hale chose not to switch, leaving the Republicans without a candidate in 2015. Stone soundly defeated Hale in the Democratic primary and ran unopposed in the general election.
Gipson, a Holly Springs attorney and former alderwoman, has received no financial or campaign support from the state Democratic Party, according to party officials. She did not file a pre-runoff campaign finance report with the Secretary of State’s Office and could not be reached for comment Monday.
“We realized it (a Republican flip) was a possibility when the seat became vacant,” said Bobby Moak, chairman of the Mississippi Democratic Party. “There’s no safe Democratic seat in Mississippi, especially during a special election. Those that would think otherwise don’t know the political landscape in this state.”
Whaley, a seventh generation Mississippian who runs the family farm and co-owns a Napa Auto Parts store with his father, said agriculture and education are the two issues he would focus on most under the Capitol dome in Jackson.
He has one child in public schools and another starting soon, and school funding is “a big concern” for him. Regarding school funding changes he would like to see implemented, he said the Legislature should “cut the waste and get down to what’s needed most in the classroom.”
Though he signaled he would caucus with Republicans, Whaley said on Monday that he would not neglect the Democrats in the Senate.
“I feel like if you’re not willing to work with either party, you’re not going to be an effective leader,” Whaley said. “I can align myself to be most effective for my district. If you go down with party politics in mind, you’re doing yourself no good.”
In addition to the Senate District 10 race, two Warren County residents – Kevin Ford and Randy Easterling – will face off in a runoff election on Tuesday for the House District 54 seat left vacant by Rep. Alex Monsour, R-Vicksburg, who resigned after being elected Vicksburg alderman in June.
Both Ford and Easterling are Republicans.