Mississippi's 4th District Faces Closest Race in Decades

Redistricting has put a number of comfortable incumbents into a tailspin, and in many cases, headlong into agonizing re-election races. The new 4th District in Mississippi is no exception.

Republican Rep. Charles W. "Chip" Pickering holds a slight advantage over Democratic Rep. Ronnie Shows, who, with the tenacity of a bulldog, has vowed a robust fight to the finish.

"Based on the political experience I have had in the last 29 years, this is going to be one of the closest races that we've ever seen in Mississippi," declared state Democratic Party Chairman Rickey Cole. "Neither side is going to get much rest."

Due to declining population, Mississippi lost a congressional seat through redistricting. Since the state Legislature is run by the Democrats, Shows assumed that lawmakers would redraw the lines in his favor, and they actually did — taking away Pickering's 5th District and giving Shows a new 4th District comprised of 38 percent Democratic black voters.

But the Justice Department under the 1965 Federal Voting Rights Act must clear any new maps in Mississippi. It failed to do so in a timely manner, clearing the way for a panel of three federal judges to impose its own map, which outlines a new 4th District with 60 percent of Pickering's old base, and only 40 percent of Shows' old constituency. In addition, Shows only gets 30 percent of his old 47 percent African-American base.

The new map has gone to the U.S. Supreme Court, but no one seems to hold out any hope that it will be overturned.

"Ronnie Shows, former basketball coach, is probably facing the toughest game of his life," said Nathan Gonzales, an analyst for the Washington. D.C.-based Rothenberg Report. "I would say this race tilts towards Pickering."

But not by much. The race is expected to be highly targeted by both national parties because both men hold a lot of conservative appeal for the voters in this new district, which is comprised of both white and black populations, rich and poor, rural and metropolitan.

"I think it will be a spirited race, obviously Chip Pickering has to work very hard because Ronnie Shows is a formidable campaigner and he’s running to the right," said Mississippi GOP Chairman Jim Herring.

Shows, who was first elected to Congress in 1998, started out as teacher and served in the state Senate and as a transportation commissioner before running successfully for his seat. He is a Blue Dog Democrat who votes with his party on most fiscal issues, but with Republicans on social issues like abortion.

"I have a nonpartisan record. I vote across party lines all the time. We vote on the issue, not the party," he said.

Shows calls himself a down-home country boy who prefers the company of his fellow Mississippians to the Washington, D.C., political rat race.

"It's a difference of blue blood and blue jeans, it's the big guy against the small guy," he said, pointing a finger at Pickering's connections in the state capital, including his father, District Judge Charles Pickering, who was recently refused an appointment to a federal appeals circuit bench seat by Senate Judiciary Committee Democrats.

Shows even goes so far as to suggest that the 4th District was drawn with the influence of those high connections.

So far, Pickering has $1.2 million in his campaign coffers, more than double that of the $481,000 on hand in the Shows campaign. But Pickering, who was elected in 1996 and grew up in farm country, says it's a matter of values and a voting record that sets him apart from Shows, not connections.

"My background, my experience, my roots, go very deep in Mississippi," said Pickering. "In my first campaign, people tried to use the same issue [of connections] because I worked in the [first] Bush administration and in Congress. But people back home rejected those claims by the other side and saw my experience as being a very positive reason to support me."

Pickering said the Justice Department didn’t sign off on the Democratically drawn redistricting lines because it was politically driven.

"Any claims of improper influence are really unjustified and it sounds like poor sportsmanship by those who had all the control and dropped the ball," he said.

Furthermore, he said he votes with the Republican leadership on both fiscal and social issues because "I'm confident that Mississippi values are most consistent with George Bush, [House Speaker] Dennis Hastert, Sen. Thad Cochran and Sen. Trent Lott."

Pickering does believe that his father's brutal confirmation hearings have in part influenced the close contest in Mississippi.

"They attacked my father partly to try and hurt me politically or to influence the redistricting," he said. "I just hope we can step back and run a positive campaign."

Shows said he plans to run a fair fight, but he does not accept that he is at the advantage demographically or otherwise.

"I've had tough races all my life and I really don't know if he has any more connections than I do. I respect his folks — this is not about personality," he said. "We've had to work hard for every campaign and I'm not going to give up because the people I represent expect me to work hard."