Share story

HATTIESBURG, Miss. (AP) — The husband of TV and movie actress Sela Ward is making his first run for political office in her native Mississippi, competing in a six-person Democratic primary for a U.S. Senate seat held by a Republican in a deeply conservative state.

Venture capitalist Howard Sherman is putting $500,000 of his and Ward’s money into the race, and with only days to go before Tuesday’s primaries, he jokes about his own name recognition: “‘Everybody calls me ‘Sela Ward’s husband, comma, Howard.'”

But Sherman says he really believes his wife — who played the U.S. president in “Independence Day: Resurgence” — will boost his chances by appealing across party lines.

Sherman and Ward met in California and raised their two children there, but they sold their Los Angeles house and are living fulltime near her hometown of Meridian. Speaking to about a dozen local Democrats recently in Hattiesburg, Sherman, 63, talked about the home for abused and neglected children that he and Ward started years ago in Meridian.

After listening intently as Sherman talked about moving Mississippi off the bottom of national rankings for health and income, spectator Cathy McNair piped up and told him: “Tell Sela we love her.”

Sherman smiled and replied: “Me, too.”

The other Democrats include state Reps. David Baria and Omeria Scott, who began with more name recognition but smaller bank accounts in a state where Republicans hold all but one statewide office.

They’re running for the seat held since 2007 by Republican Sen. Roger Wicker, who has millions in his campaign fund and just one primary opponent running a low-budget campaign.

Baria, 57, of Bay St. Louis, is an attorney and the Democratic leader in the Republican-led House. He and his wife, Marcie, lost their home to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and their 10-year-old son to rabies a few weeks later; his family believes the boy had been bitten by a bat while camping. Baria lobbied against legislators’ efforts to limit civil lawsuit awards before being elected to the state Senate and House.

Scott, 61, a state representative since 1993, is known for impassioned speeches about people she believes are ignored — those struggling to make a living in one of poorest states in the nation. Scott is a former nursing home administrator who runs a soul food restaurant in her hometown of Laurel. She’s also a breast cancer survivor who calls herself “a walking miracle.” She said doctors declared her cancer-free in February.

The other three candidates — teacher Jensen Bohren, chemist Jerone Garland and concrete contractor Victor G. Maurice — are spending little on their campaigns. A Democratic primary runoff, if needed, will be June 26.

This is an unusual election year in Mississippi, with two U.S. Senate races on November’s ballot after Sen. Thad Cochran retired amid health concerns in April at the age of 80.

Democrats are dreaming of grabbing both seats. It’s a longshot, but they look for inspiration to heavily Republican Alabama, where Doug Jones defeated Republican Roy Moore in a special Senate election last year.

Gov. Phil Bryant appointed Mississippi’s Republican agriculture commissioner, Cindy Hyde-Smith, to succeed Cochran temporarily. She’s one of four candidates in a nominally nonpartisan special general election in November, with the winner filling the final two years of the six-year term. Another is Chris McDaniel, a tea party-backed state lawmaker who nearly unseated Cochran in 2014, and Mike Espy, a Democrat who was Mississippi’s first African-American congressman since Reconstruction before becoming President Bill Clinton’s first secretary of agriculture.

“We can send two Democrats to the United States Senate,” Baria told the crowd at a fundraiser. “And what would that do, folks? That would flip the Senate.”

Scott said in an interview that Mississippi needs to be “more forward-thinking” to keep young people from leaving the state: “People want to have a job that pays a living wage so that they can spend some time at home interacting with their children,” he said.


Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter: .