TUPELO – Polls are open today in a Democratic primary runoff, a race that could serve as a testing ground for a political apparatus attempting to flex renewed strength.

The statewide runoff race pits David Baria against Howard Sherman, each attempting to win the party’s nomination to challenge incumbent U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker in a November general election.

A Mississippi native, Baria has about a decade’s worth of elected experience in the state legislature and currently serves as the minority leader in the state House.

Sherman, an investor and entrepreneur from California, only moved his permanent residence to Mississippi in recent years and has embraced his status as an outsider with few links to any party machine here in the Magnolia State.

The difference shows.

Baria has a long list of endorsements from prominent Democrats in the state, including U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, Mississippi’s only Democratic congressman.

A slate of his legislative colleagues have lined up to support his candidacy, and the legislative black caucus voted to formally endorse him, a campaign victory in a state where the Democratic electorate is majority black.

Sherman has powered his candidacy, in part, by loaning his campaign a significant amount of money and emphasizing his “outsider” status.

He has captured one key endorsement, that of Omeria Scott, herself a state House member who came in third, behind Sherman and Baria, in the first round of primary voting earlier this month.

The contours of the race between Sherman and Baria indicate that the bitter aftertaste of the 2015 statewide elections may still hang in the air. Robert Gray, an almost unknown truck driver who barely campaigned, captured the Democratic nomination for the office of governor, beating an establishment-backed candidate.

His nomination was seen as a low-point for a party that has struggled to field candidates and retain organizing energy as its power in Jackson has diminished.

Sherman is no Gray. He has campaigned extensively and spent a lot of money doing so. In that respect, his nomination would not signal the kind of black eye that Gray’s primary victory did.

However, Baria and some surrogates have sharply criticized Sherman, even calling him a “California Republican,” putting many party faces in a tight position should Sherman win the nomination.

And a Sherman victory, regardless of his ultimate performance against Wicker, might also raise questions about the effectiveness and resources of local Democratic-aligned interest ahead of statewide elections next year.

At a recent campaign stop in Tupelo, Baria himself channeled some of these concerns, warning that a Sherman victory in the runoff would send a damaging signal that deep pockets trump state-connections.

For his part, Sherman has mostly declined to engage directly with these lines of attack, emphasizing his own message of entrepreneurial energy over legislative acumen.

caleb.bedillion@journalinc.com Twitter: @CalebBedillion

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