GULFPORT, Miss. — David Baria, a state representative and attorney from Bay St. Louis, won the Democratic runoff for U.S. Senate Tuesday night, helping Democrats avoid an embarrassing loss to a candidate major party officials declined to support.

Baria’s win also avoids putting party leaders in the thorny position of having to line up behind a candidate they attempted to paint as a Republican, which became a major rallying point during as the campaign drew to a close.

Baria defeated Howard Sherman, a venture capitalist from California and the husband of Mississippi actress Sela Ward, earning the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate seat Republican Sen. Roger Wicker currently holds.

Baria’s friends and family crowded Tuesday into Murky Waters BBQ restaurant in Gulfport, hovering around the tables of patrons who had results pulled up on their computers, checking for updates between bites of pulled pork.

Baria arrived about an hour into the party, when he concentrated on mingling with visitors. When supporters at the watch party heard media reports call the race for their candidate, people jumped out of their seats and screamed. The room immediately transformed into laughter and cheers and Baria went around the room hugging supporters.

He said he hopes to take some time off to rest, but that soon his team would assemble to talk strategy for November when both U.S. Senate seats open, including one officially nonpartisan special election. That contest features former Democratic Congressman and ag Secretary Mike Espy, who political observers expect to the race — where challengers include Republicans Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith and state Sen. Chris McDaniel — competitive.

“I hope that now that the primary is over, assuming I win (after final votes are tallied), that folks can unite behind a candidate, come together and try to do some joint planning. Whereas we’ve kind of been fractured and sidelined … I think there’s a lot of enthusiasm on the Democratic side this time,” Baria told Mississippi Today on Tuesday.

“I’ve said that a number of times, but our folks are waiting. They’re chomping at the bit for this to be over with so we can really get going — so that will be exciting, to bring everybody together and start to talk to all Mississippians instead of just Democratic primary voters. I’m looking forward to having that conversation with all Mississippi voters.”

The state House minority leader, Baria, 55, is a third-term legislator and trial attorney. He beat incumbent state Sen. Scottie Cuevas in 2007, and later went on to win a seat in the House representing House District 122.

In the Legislature, Baria has been a consistent vote on most issues for the Democratic minority. Voters in November will decide between a clear ideological contrast in Baria’s liberal-leaning voting record and Wicker’s conservative bonafides.

Baria’s win also signifies a big win for the Democratic political establishment in the state, which publicly stuck their necks out for Baria’s candidacy.

Meanwhile, in Meridian, a single staffer for Howard Sherman sat at the downstairs bar of Weidmann’s restaurant downtown. Thirty minutes after the 8 p.m. watch party time listed on the evening’s invitation, a man wearing a Sherman campaign T-shirt appeared to be the only visible candidate at the restaurant.

In the restaurant’s upstairs bar, a couple dozen people gathered for the weekly trivia game, while several dozen people ate and kept to themselves in the main dining room of the restaurant.

Around 9:15 p.m., Sherman and Ward arrived to the restaurant. Several television reporters who were broadcasting the interview live on camera rushed to meet the couple at their van.

Ward, an unmovable presence on Sherman’s political advertisements and during the campaign, took the first questions from reporters. Throughout the interview with Sherman, a teary-eyed Ward interrupted to offer her perspective. Their college-aged daughter and son stood beside their parents as supporters inside the restaurant greeted them with applause.

“Our love for the state — the way we view it — is filled with enormous potential for change. A statement was made today: ‘We’re not ready for change. We’re not ready for a square peg in a round hole. We’re not ready for out-of-the-box solutions,’” Sherman told reporters, referring to Democratic voters. He added: “They voted for conventional. That’s what they voted for. There are tens of thousands of people that voted for change, that voted for a new wave, for that square peg.”

In the midst of his first ever political campaign, Sherman had pitched himself all year as the political outsider. But Sherman’s outsiderness raised eyebrows and drew rebuke from Democratic elected officials and operatives.

Just last year, Sherman gave the maximum allowed campaign contribution to Sen. Wicker, who he would have faced in November.

Sherman used the star power of his wife Sela Ward and a fat personal pocketbook – dropping $850,000 of his own money into his campaign – to reach Mississippians through television and radio advertisements. His campaign finance reports were lined with mostly out-of-state donors, swaths of whom reside in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York City.

“We love this state, and we have met the most amazing people. It has been an experience of joy and such pride to really see the state as a whole and all its potential. It’s bittersweet, but that’s life — and onward!,” Ward said.

Baria and Sherman entered into a run-off for the title of Democratic nominee after the June 5 primary. Sherman had earned the endorsement of third place candidate Rep. Omeria Scott, D-Laurel.

Rep. Sonya Williams-Barnes, D-Gulfport, supported her fellow Coast Democrat from the outset of his campaign and said the result was affirming for the party.

“We can do it for David; we can do it for ourselves,” she said. “I think it’s more than just tonight, it’s a larger win for the state.”

Asked who he would support in November, Sherman declined to endorse Baria, telling Mississippi Today: “It’s way too early. We’re still dealing with the emotions of it all. I’m not supporting Roger Wicker, but I’ve got to regroup.”

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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.

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.