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Analysis: Dem and GOP primaries in August both have Miss. legislative races worth watching

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JACKSON, Mississippi — Mississippi politicians are gearing up for a busy summer campaign season. One legislative race worth watching is a Democratic primary that pits two incumbent state senators against each other up north. Another is a Gulf Coast Republican primary in which a senator with statewide ambitions is challenged by a former emergency director who handled local operations during Hurricane Katrina.

Primaries are Aug. 4 and the general election is Nov. 3.

In Senate District 51 in coastal Jackson County, two-term incumbent Michael Watson of Pascagoula is challenged in the Republican primary by Butch Loper of Vancleave, who was the county's emergency management director for four years.

Watson, a 37-year-old attorney, is an ally of state Sen. Chris McDaniel of Ellisville, who lost a tough Republican primary to longtime U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran in 2014. Watson said he considered challenging Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves in this year's GOP primary, and he hasn't ruled out a future run for statewide office. But, Watson chose to seek re-election rather than trying to unseat the Senate's presiding officer in what he said would have been at least a $2 million campaign.

Loper, 59, has worked in various jobs for Jackson County for 27 years, and is currently assistant road manager. Loper said that during Katrina in 2005, he led a team that was responsible for the safety of 138,000 people. "Teamwork" is a word he used several times during an interview last week with The Associated Press.

"I don't think a good partnership is happening between the House of Representatives and the senators of Jackson County," Loper said.

Watson disagreed.

"The coastal delegation is working together so much better now than it ever has before," Watson said in a separate interview. "Butch hasn't done his homework and doesn't know what he's talking about when he says things like that."

In northern Mississippi, the newly configured Senate District 10 has all of Tate County and most of Marshall County. It also has two Democratic incumbents in the party primary — first-term Sen. Steve Hale of Senatobia and second-term Sen. Bill Stone of Holly Springs.

The Republican-controlled Legislature redrew state House and Senate districts in 2012 to account for population changes revealed by the 2010 Census. Stone's current District 2 — in Benton, Marshall and Tippah counties — was broken apart to help create a new district in fast-growing DeSoto County.

Stone landed in a new district with fellow Sen. Nickey Browning, and it included more of Browning's territory than Stone's. Browning switched from Democrat to Republican in 2013. Also in 2013, Stone moved from Benton County to Marshall County, putting him and Hale in the new District 10.

Hale has filed court papers challenging whether Stone will meet the requirement of living in the Senate district for two full years by the November general election. Hale says Stone will fall short of the two years. Stone says he will meet the requirement.

Hale, 61, is a former Senatobia alderman and mayor. When Democratic Gov. Ronnie Musgrove was in office from 2000 to 2004, Hale was deputy director, and then director, of the Mississippi Development Authority.

Asked how he is different from Stone, Hale told the AP: "I think my voting record is a little more pro-business than his."

Stone, 49, a real estate broker and appraiser, said voters will decide that.

"My voting record is good from a business standpoint because I support the things we need to be able to grow our business community, like public education," Stone said in a separate interview, adding that he voted against "tax cuts that would hurt the state budget."

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Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus .

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