This Mississippi political year ‘takes the cake’

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Rogelio V. Solis, AP

Voters wait in line to cast their ballots in Ridgeland on Nov. 8, 2016. This year’s elections promise more drama.

It’s about as wild as it can get politically in Mississippi.

Both U.S. Senate seats will be up for election on a single November night, and a nasty primary is sure to develop before then. Oh, and there’s also an open U.S. House seat up for grabs. 

“I’ve lived a lot of Mississippi political history, and I’ve studied it for as long as I can remember,” said former U.S. Sen. Trent Lott. “This one takes the cake. Over the last 50 years, and probably more than that, we’ve not had anything like this.”

Sen. Thad Cochran on Monday announced his upcoming retirement, which will force a Nov. 6 special election for that seat. If no candidate earns 50 percent of the vote, the top two vote-getters will run off two weeks later. It’s called a “jungle primary” but there is no primary — everyone runs in that truly open election. 

Just last week, incumbent Sen. Roger Wicker learned that he faces a tough Republican primary challenge in June from anti-establishment candidate Chris McDaniel. Several able Democrats are set battle it out in their own primary for a bid at that same seat. That regularly-scheduled general election will also be held on Nov. 6.

McDaniel, however, is not ruling out leaving the Wicker race for the special election to fill Cochran’s seat. A McDaniel flip may inspire some Democratic flips. But that all depends on who Gov. Phil Bryant temporarily appoints to hold the seat until that special election.

Bryant could appoint anyone he wants, but GOP leaders in Washington have told the governor now for weeks they want someone who could stave off a challenge from McDaniel, who is looking to upset the Washington establishment.

Most candidates who are reportedly on Bryant’s shortlist also are considered likely candidates for statewide election in 2019, meaning the decision made in the upcoming days could throw the trains off the tracks of the long-term future of Mississippi’s state offices.

Then there’s the notion that Bryant could appoint himself, which would shuffle the state’s current executive government leaders – namely Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who would become governor almost two years before a long-planned 2019 gubernatorial bid.

Bryant on Tuesday, however, sent a statement to the Washington Post stating he would not appoint himself.

“The governor will serve out his term,” Bryant spokesman Clay Chandler said Tuesday. “He will not appoint himself to the U.S. Senate, believing it improper to do so.”

Add in the open U.S. House seat being vacated by Rep. Gregg Harper, long considered a natural successor to Cochran, but who announced plans earlier this year to leave the Washington political circus for quieter time back home in Mississippi.

Got all that?

It’s a perfect political storm and we’ve only heard the first thunderclaps so far.

Have you ever seen anything like this?

“No, not in my time,” said longtime Republican political operative Clarke Reed. “It never happens here. I hope we get the right Republican running for the open seat.”

When asked if Reed thought McDaniel would be the right Republican for the seat, he said: “In my opinion he’s not. I don’t like the company he keeps. (Former White House strategist Steve) Bannon is the death of the party to me. He’s running against his own Republicans, not Democrats.”

“He’s got Roy Moore in Alabama,” Reed continued. “He ruined that (Senate) seat. They got a Democrat in place, and that’s what happens if they keep this stuff up.”

“It’s a jumbled up deal,” said Marty Wiseman, political historian and former executive director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University. “There has been some crazy stuff. Back when we lost a congressional seat when you had Ronnie Shows running against Chip Pickering. Two incumbents running against each other. I’m going to have to sit down and give it some thought.”

Jere Nash, a longtime Democratic political observer, said Cochran’s retirement is in some ways reminiscent of U.S. Sen. Trent Lott in 2007. When Lott stepped down, then Gov. Haley Barbour appointed Roger Wicker, a U.S. House member at the time, to fill the seat. That in turn forced a special election for Wicker’s House seat.

“You had a lot going on in those 18 months. That’s the last time I remember so many things going on at the same time. But to have two Senate races and the Gregg Harper retirement, you’ve got a lot of moving pieces,” Nash said.

There is one key difference — the level of speculation about possible successors, Nash said.

“Trent Lott’s resignation was a surprise. The Thad Cochran thing has been going on for a long time so there’s just been more time for people to speculate. The more time you give people, the more mischief they’re going to create.”

Leslie McLemore, a civil rights activist and politician who has been heavily involved in Democratic state politics, said he believes the opportunity could open the door for Democrats in the state.

“This is like double Christmas in March,” McLemore said. “I think there is more energy in the Democratic Party in Mississippi now than there’s been in a very long time. I think, quite frankly, President Trump has done more to probably energize grassroots politics across the country than anyone has done in the last 20 years.”

Contributing: Kayleigh Skinner, R.L. Nave