Editor’s Note: This column was first published on Dec. 16, 1976 as part of Wayne Weidie’s syndicated column series, “The Political Scene,” which ran through 43 newspapers in the state of Mississippi and spanned from 1970 to 1990. Political Scene columns will be periodically republished on The Weidie Report.
On slow weeks, a political columnist can always play the “name game” for the next major political contest. In 1978 James O. Eastland’s current term in the U.S. Senate is due to expire. A number of us have been writing under the assumption that the powerful senior senator from Mississippi will retire and the state will see a real donnybrook for his successor.
Age is considered a factor, as Eastland will be 74 shortly after the 1978 election and a new six-year term would push Eastland up to 80. Recently, however, several political writers decided that any speculation regarding retirement by Eastland may be premature. The age thing doesn’t even hold much water since junior Sen. John Stennis found no major opposition for another term which will end when Stennis is 81.
Many names have been tossed about if Eastland’s seat becomes vacant in 1978. Most of the names were political heavyweights who would like nothing better than capturing the top prize of a seat in the U.S. Senate. The seats have been held by Eastland and Stennis since 1943 and 1947. Ambitious politicians were stymied unless than ran for governor or the U.S. House.
Some expected contenders in 1978 are former Governor Bill Waller, Attorney General A.F. Summer, 1975 governor candidate Maurice Dantin, and two of the state’s three Democratic congressman: G. V. “Sonny” Montgomery and David Bowen. To a lesser extent other possibilities on the Democratic side include former lieutenant governors William Winter and Charlie Sullivan. Canton’s Jim Herring is one of the rising political stars in Mississippi, but Herring is more likely taking aim at the 1979 governor’s race. Mississippi House Speaker C. B. “Buddy” Newman has even been rumored as a possibility, but would not be a leader of the pack.
Others thought that in the event of Eastland’s retirement, the 1978 Senate race could see the emergence of a dark horse as Dale Bumpers was in the Arkansas governor’s race before he moved up to the Senate. Some reasoned that a young, attractive dark horse, such as state Sen. John Corlew of Pascagoula, to name one among many, would be just the fresh face Mississippians are looking for in the next Senate race. The Republicans are also ready to field a major candidate with U.S. Rep. Thad Cochran and Gil Carmichael rated as the top contenders.
Everything could change and the possible field will narrow fast if Eastland decides to seek re-election. The list of major Democratic hopefuls would vanish until another day. On the Republican side, Cochran would almost surely pull out. Rep. Trent Lott also has an eye on the Senate, but Lott would hardly take on Eastland even if current Republican favorite Cochran stepped aside.
Even Bill Waller’s alleged burning ambition would be cooled if Eastland runs. Eastland’s candidacy would almost leave the field of present big names to Gil Carmichael. Carmichael boldly took on Eastland in 1972. He stunned political observers with almost 40 percent of the vote and the Meridian businessman would have no hesitancy in taking of Mississippi’s political “Godfather” again.
Taking on Eastland and beating him are two different things. One of the major factors suggested for Eastland running in 1978 would also be a factor in Eastland being even tougher than usual. Eastland played a major part in pushing Jimmy Carter in Mississippi where Carter’s victory proved crucial. Eastland is President Pro Tempore of the U.S. Senate and would enjoy more prestige than ever under a Democratic administration.
Recent Democratic Party unification in the state and Carter’s victory may create a stronger state party. Party discipline, something which the state has never seen before, may become important. Every Democrat in the state with good political sense realized that the Democrats must now develop a real party operation to help beat back Republican challenges. An attractive dark horse might even be reluctant. He could figure he’d have an outside chance of defeating Eastland and at worse, create a name for himself in defeat. But if current efforts to create a strong statewide Democratic Party organization are successful, a dark horse challenger could instead commit political suicide.
When Carmichael got his surprising vote against Eastland in 1972, it appeared that some major Democrats would consider going after Eastland the next time. If a Republican could do so well against Eastland it was reasoned that “Big Jim” might be more vulnerable for a Democrat. That reasoning may not wash now and Carmichael’s previous strong showing could be deceptive.
In 1972 Eastland received a sizeable majority of the black vote. It was a little strange considering Eastland’s racial background versus Carmichael’s. But the black turnout is growing and will increase in significance. Reports have Eastland winning the respect of black leaders because of his efforts for President-elect Carter. One Carter aide in the state campaign said that Eastland really “turned on” blacks who made up about 40 percent of the audience during a campaign appearance by Rosalynn Carter in Greenwood.
It may not please some Mississippians when in a couple of years our two U.S. Senators are well into their seventies, but it may be near impossible to do anything about it.