Rogers McClellan votes during the 2018 Mississippi Primary Election at Christ United Methodist Church, voting precinct 46, in the 6000 block of Old Canton Road in Jackson Tuesday, June 5, 2018.

A nail-biter of a Democratic primary for U.S. Senate sets up a runoff election in three weeks between a veteran legislator and the spouse of a Mississippi-born actress.

The home stretch, which included appearances at one of Jackson’s largest black churches and an uptick in radio advertising, seemed to pay off for Rep. David Baria, the minority leader in the Mississippi House, and venture capitalist Howard Sherman.

In official results, Baria and Sherman finished as the top two vote getters after spending most of the evening neck-and-neck, mostly with Baria narrowly leading until the final moments before the Associated Press called the election a runoff with Sherman in the first-place seat.

Howard Sherman and Sela Ward in 2016.

“What I discovered over the last three weeks is when you advance a program and people haven’t had a chance to meet you, given that I come to this situation with a very different background, it’s important to keep doing that. The next three weeks will be putting a person to the ideas. The goal is to continue to have people meet me and give people that one degree of separation,” Sherman told Mississippi Today by phone.

Baria said he was thankful to be in the runoff, but did not mention his opponent by name when he spoke to Mississippi Today.

Rep. David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis, speaks at the well in House chambers at the Capitol in 2015. 

“I want to begin by thanking my friend and colleague Representative Omeria Scott for running a strong campaign with limited funds.  I have served with Rep. Scott and I appreciate her leadership,” Baria said.

The results also reveal the highest voter turnout in a Democratic midterm primary for U.S. Senate since 2006, when 104,804 Democrats voted. That year, Erik Fleming and Bill Bowlin ended up in runoff which Fleming ultimately won.

Leading up to the primary, many Democrats and Black Caucus House members endorsed Baria.

Immediately after the runoff was called, Scott, a 25-year veteran of the Legislature, told Mississippi Today she was proud of her race and offered congratulations to Baria and Sherman. Scott did not say whether she would endorse either candidate. When asked if she thought either had a chance in November against incumbent Sen. Roger Wicker, she said:

“I’m going to be very honest — I always thought that I had the better chance to win. But the Democrats did not think that.”

The shadow of 2015

Political observers predicted the contest be tight given the legislative experience of Baria and his colleague, Scott, who could also appeal to African Americans and women who are the bedrock of the Democratic electorate.

Sherman, meanwhile, had vast enough financial resources to loan his campaign at least $500,000 and is married to Sela Ward, a Meridian native and Emmy-award-winning actress who remains popular in her home state.

Early Tuesday, no Democratic operatives felt confident in predicting an outcome of Tuesday’s primary. Most expected a runoff between two of the three top candidates. Even the state’s longtime Democratic elected officials seemed unsure how Tuesday would go.

Democratic operatives also quietly feared that low turnout could give way to a surprise reminiscent of a few years ago. The last time Democratic voters went to the polls in a statewide primary, the clear establishment pick in the 2015 gubernatorial race got beat by Robert Gray, a truck driver who spent no money on his campaign and didn’t even vote.

Three years later, those memories haunted the Mississippi Democratic Party. Conventional wisdom and campaign trends indicated all along that Baria, Scott, and Sherman – had the best shot at the nomination.

“I expect one of those main three (Baria, Scott, and Sherman) will pull it out, but I guess the bottom line is you just never know,” Vicki Slater, who lost to Gray, told Mississippi Today earlier on Election Day. “I may have to eat my words tomorrow. I guess we’ll see.”

The 2015 primary disaster was heavy on the minds of Democratic officials and operatives as voters trickled to the polls.

Gray, who ran a low-budget, modest campaign after he earned the Democratic nomination, eventually lost to Gov. Phil Bryant in the general election by 34 points. He told Mississippi Today on Election Day that he planned to vote this time around.

“We do live in the greatest country in the world, and what makes our country great is our government,” Gray told Mississippi Today on Tuesday. “We have everything here that we need and should want to make our lives better. These (Senate candidates) are being honest about how they’re going to take the country. If you don’t get out and vote, it won’t work out for anyone.”

A Sherman-Baria matchup

The runoff presents a quandary for the Democratic electorate: Support Baria, a known quantity who has earned his stripes in the Legislature, or go for the allure of the big money that Sherman and his celebrity wife, Ward, can raise.

Rep. Omeria Scott, D-Laurel, addresses a crowd in Port Gibson on May 9, 2018.

In some ways, the support of Scott — who has more legislative experience than each of the men who finished in the top slots and dominated much of the Pine Belt counties surrounding Laurel, her hometown — might be vital to the outcome.

“Can you imagine what one woman has just done? I pushed these people to the brink,” she said. “All of the (Democratic) establishment came out and endorsed other people and still we were able to garner 24 percent of the vote.”

Pam Shaw, who worked on Baria’s campaign, said she hopes he can draw Scott’s support because she believes the candidates are aligned on issues.

“In some ways a David Baria-Sherman runoff is what I wanted. There are so many contrasts,” between the candidates, said Shaw, the political director of the Baria campaign.

When asked to elaborate on the contrasts, Shaw said: “One (Baria) lived his whole life living and working in Mississippi. One (Sherman) never lived in Mississippi. One is part of the Democratic establishment. One has never been part of the Democratic establishment.”

Sherman, who maintains that Mississippi has long been the couple’s home, said his first-place finish means that Mississippians are open to a candidate who is not a life-long officeholder.

“Given that you enter a profession running against two people who have been doing it for decades, and you come in with a new person with some new ideas, it’s very affirming of the fact that the state is ready for a real change,” he said.

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Adam Ganucheau, as Mississippi Today's editor-in-chief, oversees the newsroom and works with the editorial team to fulfill our mission of producing high-quality journalism in the public interest. Adam has covered politics and state government for Mississippi Today since February 2016. A native of Hazlehurst, Adam has worked as a staff reporter for, The Birmingham News and The Clarion-Ledger and his work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Adam earned his bachelor’s in journalism from the University of Mississippi.

Kayleigh Skinner joined the Mississippi Today team in January 2017 as an education and legislative reporter and advanced to a senior staff member in her four years with the company. Before joining Mississippi Today, Kayleigh worked at The Hechinger Report, Chalkbeat Tennessee, and The Commercial Appeal. She has appeared on MSNBC, NPR, and BBC Newsday Radio to discuss her reporting.

Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.