GOP Keeps Wary Eye on Mississippi

  • Share
  • Read Later
Congressman Ronnie Shows faced the crowd of several thousand gathered at the legendary113-year-old Neshoba County Fair last week and told them, "The differences come down to this question: whose side are you on? The working people or the corporate elite?" Despite the oppressive Mississippi heat beating down on the muddy fairgrounds, Shows undoubtedly had the voters' attention. After all, he's running for reelection in WorldCom country.

With his message, Shows could get the attention of voters almost anywhere in America these days. Corporate corruption, coupled with an economy that looks dangerously close to slipping into the second swoon of a double-dip recession, has enraged the American public. And Republicans are beginning to worry that anger will burn them in November; they stand to be hurt more by the wave of boardroom scandals, the logic goes, because they are still the party more closely associated with big business. And the President, long seen as an asset with his victories in the war against terrorism, is now seen as a liability because of his corporate resume.

Will all the Enrons and WorldComs and Arthur Andersens of recent months spur voters to hand control of Congress over to the Democrats? That remains to be seen. If more white-collar crimes are uncovered and the economy continues to nosedive into the fall, Republicans could be kicked out of office in a voter tantrum — a reverse deja-vu, if you will, of the 1994 elections. But if things don't get too bad, the corporate issue will probably limit its influence to just a handful of races. Faced with several thousand former WorldCom employees going to the polls, Ronnie Shows is locked into one such race.

Until WorldCom declared bankruptcy, Shows' campaign did not have much of a chance. Shows is a conservative Blue Dog Democrat, a stance that's allowed him to serve two terms in conservative Southwest Mississippi. But this year, redistricting has combined his district with Chip Pickering's, the 39-year-old, young GOP superstar in the making. (His father is Charles Pickering, the conservative federal judge who Senate Democrats fought to keep off the appeals bench.) Chip got his start working as a key aide for Trent Lott before winning his own seat in 1996. Shows may be conservative and charming, but this is GOP territory: 64% of the voters here picked George W. Bush in 2000. And as of June 30, Pickering had a distinct financial advantage — $1.4 million on hand (bulked up by an unopposed race back in 2000) compared with Shows' $587,685.

It didn't look like much of a story — until WorldCom, headquartered in Clinton, Miss., went belly-up, and suddenly Shows saw quite a few voters who didn't lean so strongly Republican anymore. Sensing an opportunity, he began to push the issue of corporate responsibility, holding town hall meetings to talk about needed reforms. Pickering is vulnerable on this issue because he has been one of WorldCom's closest friends. In his three terms in the House, he took more campaign donations from the corporation and its employees — $82,000 — than any other member. And when Pickering worked on Lott's staff, he was the senator's point man on telecommunications, writing deregulation bills that WorldCom lobbied hard for.

Forced to fight harder than expected, Pickering is ignoring the WorldCom issue and hitting back below the belt. Pickering may be close to WorldCom, but he's accusing Shows of being buddies with Hillary Clinton, which is pretty close to a capital crime in Mississippi. "You talk about our values," Pickering retorted to Shows at the fair debate last week. "He took $5,000 from Hillary Clinton." Pickering's message to voters is clear: Shows may be a conservative Democrat, but a vote for him is a vote for Dick Gephardt to be Speaker of the House.

Pickering is also getting some outside help. President Bush stopped by for a fundraiser Wednesday, on his way to Texas. Vice President Cheney appeared at a Pickering fundraiser back in April, but Pickering probably doesn't want to talk about that one (former WorldCom CEO Bernie Ebbers was a guest.) Despite Pickering's powerful friends, corporate scandals have made this toss-up race even more of a toss-up. Republicans are just hoping headlines will quiet down enough by November. If they don't, GOP incumbents in far "safer" districts than Pickering's could face a string of similar problems.