Jackson, MS - As election returns are finalized in the next few days, Republicans are within striking distance of a 74-vote supermajority in the state House.
The GOP boosted their ranks to a solid 71 with three races remaining close early Wednesday, knocking off House Minority Leader Bobby Moak, D-Bogue Chitto and Rep. Sherra Lane, D-Waynesboro.
Rep. Bo Eaton, D-Taylorsville, teetered near defeat, trailing Republican Mark Tullos of Raleigh. In an open seat vacated by retiring Democrat Joe Warren, Republican Noah Sanford of Seminary was leading Democrat John B. Pope III of Collins.
Meanwhile Rep. David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis, clung to a slim lead over Republican Mickey Legasse of Waveland.
The gains ensure another term for House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, who had orchestrated a campaign where most Republicans ran on the popularity of the ascendant GOP brand, linking themselves to popular Gov. Phil Bryant.
Democrats had fielded more than a dozen challengers hoping to trim the Republican edge, which stood at 67-55 before Tuesday. Those Democratic challenges fell short in most districts, though. The only exception was in Oxford, where city Alderman Jay Hughes defeated freshman Republican Rep. Brad Mayo, considered an emerging leader in Republican ranks.
Republicans took control of the House for the first time in more than 130 years in 2011, giving them control of the House, Senate and governor's office for the first time since Reconstruction. That control allowed them to pass a redistricting plan that eliminated several Democratic seats, transferring them to areas where Republicans could pick up new open seats.
Facing little opposition in statewide races, Gov. Phil Bryant and some other Republicans had plowed resources into challenging some prominent Democrats, including Moak and Baria. Vince Mangold of Brookhaven, who beat Moak, raised more than $50,000, much of it from other Republican officials and GOP-leaning business groups.
"In my particular race with the affidavit ballots that have yet to be counted, I'm behind and don't personally see a win for me, mathematically-speaking," Moak said in a statement. "I would take the same legislative stands again even if it meant the same outcome for me as tonight."
If Republicans don't reach 74 seats, it opens the chance they could seek to convert more Democrats to reach their goal. Three Democrats crossed the aisle to become Republicans in the course of the last four years, with all breezing to re-election Tuesday. Even if no Democrats are willing to change parties, several voted with Republicans on some key votes over the last four years.
There was little change in the partisan balance in the Senate, where Republicans had held a 32-20 edge, already a supermajority in that chamber. The only close race was in southwest Mississippi, where Democrat Bob Dearing of Natchez was narrowly trailing incumbent Republican Melanie Sojourner, also of Natchez. Sojourner beat Dearing four years ago to claim the seat. If Sojourner holds on, Republicans will push their edge in the Senate to 33-19.