About 125 students, faculty and others sat comfortably on couches, cushioned armchairs and other furniture in the Leggett Living Room on the Millsaps College campus recently listening intently to David Baria talk about his long shot campaign to upend U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker on Nov. 6.
When Baria finished a short opening monologue, student were slow to ask questions. Crickets. But eventually the questions began to flow on issues ranging from education funding to infrastructure to racism.
Baria told students he would continue to hold townhall meetings to listen to the concerns of constituents if elected to the United States Senate. He said his opponent is not doing that.
But in response to questions, Justin Brasell, a campaign spokesperson for Wicker, said, “Sen. Wicker has been in Mississippi traveling the state for both official and campaign events every day the Senate is not in session. He flew home immediately after the Kavanaugh (Supreme Court confirmation) vote and held five events in the state on Monday.”
He added, Wicker “Will continue to be back in Mississippi every day the Senate is not in session.”
Baria, a Democratic state House member from Bay St. Louis, has been criss crossing the state holding “town hall” type forums telling attendees he would work with President Donald Trump on items like infrastructure improvements, but would not be “the rubber stamp” to the president that Wicker, and the Senate Republican majority had been.
“I think our leaders have failed us,” Baria tells the millennials at Millsaps. “I believe all of us have much more in common than what separates us.
“I believe our leaders have focused on the 10 percent that divides us for their own political means rather than the 90 percent that unites us.”
Wicker, who is seeking his second full term in the Senate, after serving in the U.S. House from 1994 until 2008 and before then in the state Senate, has refused to engage publicly with Baria.
He has said his schedule in the U.S. Senate has prevented him from committing to a debate.
When asked about the possibility of a debate, Brasell said, “Sen. Wicker looks forward to returning to Mississippi and spending more time on the campaign trail. He has made no secret of where he stands on the issues. He has made his beliefs public and works to defend those beliefs every day.”
Still, Baria is trying hard in what could be called Mississippi’s other Senate race. The Baria-Wicker campaign has garnered far less attention than the special Senate election that also will be held on Nov 6. In that election, interim Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, is battling fellow Republican Chris McDaniel, a state senator from Ellisville; Mike Espy, a Democrat and former secretary of agriculture in the Clinton administration; and Tobey Bartee, a Gautier Democrat.
In the “other” race, Wicker, a Tupelo Republican, is considered a heavy favorite. Wicker dwarfs Baria in terms of campaign funding. As of this past summer, the Tupelo Republican had $3.1 million in cash on hand compared to $72,922 for Baria.
Recently, though, Baria, the state House minority leader, has cobbled together enough funding to run a television commercial. The ad is running in all markets except the expensive Memphis area in DeSoto County.
Baria said the hope is to have enough funds to run another ad during the final days of the campaign.
In an NBC poll released earlier this month, Wicker held a 14-point advantage (43 percent to 29 percent) among likely voters.
At Millsaps, Baria tells the students Wicker was in 2015 the only senator to vote against a Senate resolution stating “climate change is real and not a hoax.”
Wicker has said in the past that scientific data is not conclusive.
On his campaign web page, Wicker said, “I am committed to protecting our natural resources in a balanced way that preserves our environment for sportsmen, fishermen, and outdoor enthusiasts.”
Baria tells the Millsaps crowd he will work to ensure Mississippi expands Medicaid as is allowed under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act to provide health insurance for the working poor.
Of Medicaid expansion, Brasell said on behalf of Wicker,“that is a decision for the state Legislature to make.”
Baria said he would advocate for Medicaid expansion as a U.S. senator and would strive to change federal law to ensure the now less than 20 states that had rejected Medicaid expansion would be compelled to accept it.
One area where the candidates agree is that the state flag, which contains the controversial Confederate battle emblem as part of its design should be replaced.
“I believe in equality for all,” said Baria. “When I say all, I mean it as the most expansive it can be.”
He tells the crowd he does not believe in party labels, but said he probably would be rated as a little left of center.
“I am open-minded,” willing to change as he learns more information about an issue, he said.
Wicker touts his conservative credentials, his allegiance to President Donald Trump and a strong economy as reasons to vote for him.
“I want to continue working with President Trump to grow our economy, secure our borders and keep America safe,” Wicker has said.
No Democratic candidate has garnered more than 45 percent of the vote in Mississippi for U.S. Senate since 2008 when former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove ran unsuccessfully in a special election against Wicker to replace Trent Lott, who like Cochran retired in the midst of his term. Before then, in 1988, former U.S. Rep. Wayne Downy garnered more than 45 percent against Lott.
In a sense, David Baria is running not only against Roger Wicker, but Mississippi history.