Miss. Senate Race Duked Out At County Fair

Roger Wicker

Republican candidate Roger Wicker addresses crowds at the Neshoba County Fair. Wicker has held Trent Lott's Senate seat since Lott resigned from office in December 2007. Debbie Elliott/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Debbie Elliott/NPR
Crowds at Mississippi County Fair

Crowds gather to hear political speeches at the Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi. Debbie Elliott/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Debbie Elliott/NPR

The Candidates:

Roger Wicker, Republican
  • Born: July 5, 1951, in Pontotoc, Miss.
  • Education: University of Mississippi, bachelor's degree and law degree
  • Military: Air Force and Air Force Reserve
  • Religion: Baptist
  • Family: Married, three children
  • Professional: Lawyer, public defender, congressional aide, Mississippi state senator
  • In Washington: 13 years in U.S. House of Representatives; eight months in U.S. Senate.
  • At A Glance: Wicker started off as a leader of the revolutionary Class of 1994, the Republicans who took over Congress after 40 years of Democratic control. He became more of a quiet insider by the time he left the House at the end of 2007 to take Trent Lott's seat in the Senate. In the House, he served on the Appropriations Committee, where he was known for bringing home the bacon — money for pet projects in his district and state. He concentrated on helping Mississippi recover from the 2005 hurricanes and develop its high-tech defense industries. His voting record shows him to be loyal to the Republican Party and President Bush.
Ronnie Musgrove, Democrat
  • Born: July 29, 1956, in Tocowa, Miss.
  • Education: University of Mississippi, bachelor's degree and law degree
  • Religion: Baptist
  • Family: Married to second wife. Has two children from previous marriage.
  • Professional: Lawyer, currently in private practice
  • In Jackson: Mississippi state senator; four years as lieutenant governor; four years as governor
  • At A Glance: As governor, Musgrove started a program called the Advantage Mississippi Initiative to promote job growth. He signed a bill raising pay for the state's teachers, although it remains among the lowest in the nation. He led a failed campaign to change the design on the Mississippi state flag, which includes the Confederate battle flag emblem. He signed a bill to prevent gays from adopting children. As governor of Mississippi, Musgrove also invited Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore to display his controversial 10 Commandments monument in the Mississippi State Capitol. The monument had been removed from the Alabama Supreme Court building after it was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Neshoba County campgrounds

Both local and national candidates have a long history of giving stump speeches at the Neshoba County Fair. President Regan began his 1980 presidential campaign at the Neshoba County campgrounds. Debbie Elliott/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Debbie Elliott/NPR

Longtime Republican Senate leader Trent Lott won re-election in landslide after landslide, but now the once-comfy seat in Mississippi is up for grabs. Republican Sen. Roger Wicker, appointed after Lott retired last year, faces former Democratic Gov. Ronnie Musgrove in what pundits are calling the Deep South contest of the year.

And that has brought the candidates to the summer political tradition of the year — the Neshoba County Fair. It's a 10-day tent revival meeting in the red clay hills near Philadelphia in east Mississippi — except that the tents are two- and three-story cabins, 600 of them, lined up beyond the carnival rides and cow barns.

"When you're at the Neshoba County Fair, you know you're in the heart and soul of Mississippi," says Wicker, 57, a lawyer, longtime congressman and former state senator. He's on a stage in the fair's pavilion, where hundreds of people have crowded onto rustic wooden pews. Wicker has a receptive audience in this nearly all-white, rural crowd. A few folks in the front rows have made signs juxtaposing Musgrove with a few national Democrats who are not so popular here: Hillary Clinton, Al Gore and Barack Obama. Wicker also makes the link.

"My opponent is the Democratic national nominee for United States senator," Wicker says. "Barack Obama is certainly supporting Ronnie Musgrove. He's raising money for him, he's working for him and he wants Ronnie elected."

A Hard Sell At The Fair

Musgrove, a 52-year-old lawyer, does benefit from Obama's popularity among African-Americans in Mississippi. Blacks make up more than one-third of the state's population. But that's not something Musgrove touts to the crowd in Neshoba County, where the thing to advertise is conservative credentials.

"Make no mistake about it," Musgrove tells the crowd. "I'm a Mississippi Democrat, pro life and pro gun." It's the same strategy Democrat Travis Childers used to win Wicker's north Mississippi House seat earlier this year. That victory has political observers wondering if the Republican hold on the Deep South is slipping.

As a former governor, Musgrove is better known statewide than Wicker. His campaign is less about introducing himself to voters and more about trying to show he's not aligned with the national Democratic Party.

"I will not go to Washington, D.C., and line up and vote lock step with the party," he says. "That is not putting Mississippi first."

Still, Musgrove is a hard sell at the fair.

"We've had Musgrove for governor. He didn't do much to help us," says James Mayfield as he sits on the cabin porch of his friends, John and Turner Smith, who are shelling butter beans. They say they got more help with Republicans in Washington, and they point out that Ronald Reagan opened his presidential campaign in Neshoba County.

"1980 was the watershed," says Sid Salter, a columnist with the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson. "When Reagan Republican politics came to Mississippi, it had ripples that carried on. I think now the pendulum may be swinging back."

Salter says Mississippi Republicans like Trent Lott found success using Reagan's formula: looking back to better times and emphasizing issues of faith and family values. "The challenge for Roger Wicker right now is that when people go through the checkout line or drive through the gas station, they're not feeling very warm and fuzzy."

Musgrove strikes right at those economic concerns, boldly echoing Ronald Reagan. "Are you better off now than you were a few years ago?" he asks as the crowd cries, "No!"

A Tradition Born Of Religious Revivals

Politicians have been making stump speeches at the fair since 1896, just a few years after it started. It's one of the last camp fairgrounds in the country, a tradition that grew out of old religious tent revivals.

"I'm really vested in this place," says Neshoba County native Dick Molpus, the Democratic candidate for governor in 1995. He says he's heard both soaring inspiration and the worst that politics can offer at the pavilion here. "We started this whole terrible Southern strategy idea, when white Democrats left and became white Republicans, but I'm hopeful that we're going to spend more time in the future not talking about race, but ... what lifts us up as one group of people."

Fairgoer George Henderson, an African-American retired state trooper, says it doesn't matter what color you are when you pull up to the gas pump.

"I don't think it's a hard matter to figure out," he says. "We see what the ruling party has done and we see what a mess we're in."

Wicker says he knew the race would be competitive. The state's top Republican, Gov. Haley Barbour, has been campaigning for Wicker. He says the GOP is not taking anything for granted. Asked whether the Republican brand is losing favor in the Deep South, he said, "Not in my state."

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