Can Republicans, Democrats find common ground? We ask South Mississippians.
In 2008, as a majority of northeast Mississippians were voting with the rest of the state for Republicans John McCain for president and Roger Wicker for Senate in a hotly contested special election, they also were playing the pivotal role in electing Democrat Travis Childers to the U.S. House representing the 1st District.
That year northeast Mississippians placed geographic loyalty over political party loyalty. Northeast Mississippians opted to vote for Childers from Booneville, about 30 miles north of Tupelo, over Republican Greg Davis, the mayor of Southaven, which is a Memphis suburb located on the other side of the state in northwest Mississippi.
Davis had defeated northeast Mississippi’s Glenn McCullough Jr., former mayor of Tupelo and current executive director of the Mississippi Development Authority, in the Republican primary.
Two years later the Republican nominee was state Sen. Alan Nunnelee of Tupelo, who defeated Childers, thanks in part to votes he received from northeast Mississippi.
If Attorney General Jim Hood is elected governor this year, it most likely will be because of support he receives in his native northeast Mississippi. In winning four statewide elections against well funded opponents, northeast Mississippi has been a solid voting bloc for Hood, a Chickasaw County native.
Granted, Hood, Mississippi’s only statewide elected Democrat, has survived and thrived by performing better than his fellow party candidates not only in northeast Mississippi, but in multiple areas of the state, ranging from the Gulf Coast to suburban Jackson and multiple other areas. But Hood has thus far won four statewide races by comfortable margins.
Hood’s last election for attorney general in 2015 against Mike Hurst, the current U.S. attorney for the Southern District, was his closest yet — at 55 percent to 45 percent.
Most likely, if given truth serum, Hood campaign officials would concede they do not expect to win the governor’s mansion this year by a 10-point margin.
But, if Hood is able to perform at least close to expectations in traditional Democratic areas, such as Hinds County, the Delta and a handful of other areas, and does well in northeast Mississippi, he will at least be in the ballgame.
That is essentially how the state’s last Democratic governor — Ronnie Musgrove — defeated former U.S. Rep. Mike Parker way back in 1999.
In the 10 counties in extreme Northeast Mississippi, Musgrove defeated Parker by about 7,700 votes, which incidentally is close to his margin of victory statewide in the razor thin election. Four years later, Republican Haley Barbour defeated Musgrove by about 10,700 votes in the same counties. Musgrove won nine of those 10 counties against Parker, but only three of them against Barbour.
Musgrove’s totals dropped by a few hundred votes, but Barbour’s vote total exceeded that of Parker by more than 16,500.
The Republican Barbour was able to drive up the vote totals in a number of areas, ranging from DeSoto County in northwest Mississippi to populous Harrison County on the Gulf Coast.
But Barbour and then-state Republican Party Chair Jim Herring made it clear at the time that turning around voters in northeast Mississippi was a crucial part of their strategy.
Barbour campaigned extensively in northeast Mississippi, including bringing NASCAR driving legend Darrell Waltrip to the area.
“I think northeast Mississippi is still crucial to Republicans being elected statewide in Mississippi,” Herring said recently.
He added the fact that Hood is from northeast Mississippi and has performed well there in the past “absolutely” should be a concern for Republicans.
In addition, Hood served as district attorney before being elected attorney general. His old district encompassed not only areas of northeast Mississippi, but also parts of north central Mississippi, such as Lafayette County – an area that normally votes Republican, but another area where Hood has inroads.
“Hood wants to get back to the old yellow dog Democratic days” in the region, Herring said.
Whether northeast Mississippi’s geographic loyalty still trumps its party loyalty could be a key in this year’s election for governor.
This column was produced by Mississippi Today, a nonprofit news organization that covers state government, public policy, politics and culture. Bobby Harrison is Mississippi Today’s senior Capitol reporter.