Turnout a 'pleasant' surprise; candidates crank up for runoffs

Staff Writer

Three weeks ago, Clay County election officials said they would be surprised if the Nov. 6 election drew a 35 percent turnout. But congressional and judicial races heated up in the days leading up to voting, attracting many voters who a month ago likely would have stayed home.

The result was a 57 percent turnout in the county, one of the highest ever in a midterm election and numbers close to presidential or county general election years.

“I didn’t know it was going to get so heated at the end,” Election Commission member Mae Brewer said when reminded of the Election Commission’s prediction at the Oct. 18 West Point Rotary Club meeting.
"It was a pleasant surprise. It just sort of seemed to happen in the last couple of weeks," Clay Circuit Court Clerk Bob Harrell said.

Clay County was not alone. Lowndes, Oktibbeha, and other counties in the area all saw nighter-than-expected turnouts with Lowndes hitting right at 50 percent of its more than 40,000 registered voters and Oktibbeha recording a turnout of almost 54 percent.

And not surprisingly, Clay remained a blue spot in a largely red state with Democrats Mike Espy, David Baria and even long-shot Randy Wadkins all carrying the county, despite trailing in the rest of their districts or state.

Those races also documented the mostly straight party-line voting pattern with the Democrats’ percentages fluctuating only marginally between Espy’s 54.85 percent of the vote in the four-person special U.S. Senate race, and the 53.8 percent Baria got against incumbent Republican Roger Wicker in the standard U.S. Senate race and Watkins got in the First District congressional bid against incumbent Republican Trent Kelly.

Kelly and Wicker handily won re-election overall while Espy and Republican appointed incumbent Cindy Hyde-Smith will face each other in the Nov. 27 runoff.

Traditionally, second-tier races on the ballot attract less voters than statewide campaigns. That was the case Tuesday as two open chancery court seats also were on the ballot. And while the voter drop off occurred, it was not as significant as sometimes happens.

Overall, 7,880 Clay County voters cast ballots Tuesday. The highest participation, surprisingly, was in the First District congressional race with 7,709 ballots cast. A total of 7,695 were cast in the special Senate race and 7,609 in the Wicker-Baria race.

The two chancery court races attracted a total of 7,090 votes, only about 8 percent fewer that the highest voter participation.

Clay County election workers reviewed the 149 affidavit ballots cast in Tuesday’s election, accepting 77 of them. Of the original 149, 10 were for lack of a photo ID and those people have 10 days to bring an ID to the clerk’s office to verify their credentials.

Others were people who had registered late, were’t registered at all or couldn’t verify addresses or other information.

The 77 votes made little difference on the outcomes.

Columbus attorney Carrie Jourdan polled 1,243 votes to lead Clay in the District 14, Place 2 race. Joe Studdard was second with 1,097 and attorney Gary Goodwin was third with 955 votes.

Overall in the district that includes parts of Clay and Lowndes, Studdard led the race with about 6,300 total votes while Jourdan was second with more than 6,100 votes.

Those two will meet in the Nov. 27 runoff.

In Chancery Court, Place 3, Paula Drungole-Ellis carried Clay with 2,304 votes on her way to capturing the seat over Starkville attorney Roy Perkins who got 1,491 votes in Clay County.

Drungole-Ellis also carried the parts of the district in Oktibbeha and Noxubee counties.

She replaces retiring Judge Dorothy Colom.

Studdard and Jourdan are vying to replace Judge Jim Davidson, who also did not seek re-election.

The third Chancery Court judge, Ken Burns, also didn’t run, marking the first time in the state’s history three veteran sitting judges all decided not to seek re-election in the same year.

Burns’ post, which covers part of Oktibbeha, Webster and Chickasaw, also will be decided in a runoff.

Those elections pose special challenges for the candidates, requiring them to get their voters out again without the backdrop of national media hype over voting and less than a week after the Thanksgiving holiday. At the same time, they must try to lure some of the vanquished foe’s voters.

It’s not lost on those involved.

“I thought we all ran a very good, issue-oriented race based on our qualifications and our vision,” Jourdan said. “With lots of people talking about the elections, we got our supporters out, they were energized. I can’t thank them enough for the work and support they’ve offered during the last few weeks. And I know they will be there again, but it always is a challenge.

“And now we have to try to get Gary’s supporters to stay involved and make a decision. They are good folks, I know lots of them because we all have been practicing for so long. That’s the message we will be trying to get out to them in the next three weeks,” she said.

Studdard spent Wednesday answering calls and writing a legal brief that was due. “You’d like to take a break, but you can’t. Your law practice and clients still are there and you’ve got to meet their needs and reach out to voters again, remind them it’s not over. I think that’s the toughest thing, Once that’s done, it’s back on the campaign trail, thanking voters, reminding them they have to make one more trip to the polls and reaching out to new supporters. You just have to keep pushing your values and ideas,” he said.

On the statewide level, the challenges are even greater for Espy. He ran well with Hyde-Smith but must energize Democrats and Independents again. That’s not easy in a red state, especially one with a well-funded and passionate Republican base and President Donald Trump pushing Hyde-Smith’s campaign.