Magnolia growing blue

In a year promising one electoral surprise after another, Mississippi may be poised to offer the biggest shocker of them all — Democrats may walk away on Election Day with one of the state’s Senate seats and maybe even its six electoral votes.

Admittedly, that possibility ranks among the most unlikely this year. While Mississippi has a viable Democratic Party at the state level, Mississippi Republicans have effectively exterminated most signs of their rivals at the federal level over the past three decades. Democrats haven’t won the state at the presidential level since 1976, and the GOP broke a Democratic stranglehold dating back to Reconstruction when they took the state’s two U.S. Senate seats with Thad Cochran’s election in 1978 and Trent Lott’s in 1989.

Similarly, at the gubernatorial level, Republican Kirk Fordice’s victory in 1991 was his party’s first since 1876. While Democrat Ronnie Musgrove succeeded him in 1999, he lasted just a single term, ousted by former Republican Party Chairman Haley Barbour in 2003.

But things may be changing in the Magnolia State. Lott heeded the call of K Street and abandoned his constituents mid-term. His appointed replacement, Roger Wicker, now faces a tough special-election battle against the resurrected Musgrove. A nonpartisan Research 2000 poll conducted for Daily Kos in mid-May found Wicker with a narrow 46-42 lead, while a Rasmussen poll in late May gave Musgrove a razor-thin 47-46 lead. Both poll results were within the margin of error, indicating a tied race. And because of a quirk in Mississippi law, party identification won’t be listed in the special-election battle. People won’t be reminded at the ballot box that Musgrove is a Democrat.

Additionally, those numbers assume traditional turnout patterns, which Barack Obama threatens to upend in dramatic fashion. Mississippi boasts the largest black population in the United States — 37.1 percent of the state, according to 2006 U.S. Census Bureau calculations. With Obama expected to spur record turnout from that demographic this November, the energized black vote alone may very well make the state competitive.

President Bush won Mississippi in 2004 in a 59-40 blowout. According to the exit polls, 65 percent of voters were white, and they chose Bush by an 85-14 margin. Thirty-four percent of voters were black, among whom John Kerry won 90-10.

But if African-American turnout rises five points to 40 percent, and Obama wins it 95-5, and if Obama boosts Democratic performance of the remaining 60 percent of voters to 20 percent, you suddenly have a tie game — 50-50. Is this feasible?

The black vote will certainly be motivated. Newly minted Democratic congressman Travis Childers owes his surprising victory in large part to a huge black turnout in the May 13 special runoff election. Ironically, that large turnout was spurred in large part by Republican efforts to tie Childers to Obama. Rather than energize white voters with scary images of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the exact opposite happened, and black turnout virtually doubled from an initial April 22 vote to the runoff.

Getting Obama to 20 percent of the white vote is a taller order, but not impossible. Kerry, a poor fit for the region, won 19 percent of the white vote in neighboring Alabama, and Bill Clinton (a better fit as a Southern Democrat) won 24 percent in Mississippi. The aforementioned Research 2000 poll gave Obama 18 percent of the white vote. McCain’s chances in the state will hinge on keeping Obama’s white support in the gutter.

Childers, Musgrove and Obama may face tough odds, but Republicans take this state for granted at their own peril.


Moulitsas is founder and publisher of Daily Kos .