Mississippi

Jim Hood loss could position Mississippi Republicans for an era of long-time dominance

Longtime state Sen. Gray Tollison of Oxford, center, listens to Gov. Haley Barbour explain why Tollison switched from Democrat to Republican at a news conference at state GOP headquarters in Jackson, Miss., as U.S. Rep. Gregg Harper, R-Miss., listens Thursday, Nov. 10, 2011. The GOP already held the majority in the 52-member Senate.
Longtime state Sen. Gray Tollison of Oxford, center, listens to Gov. Haley Barbour explain why Tollison switched from Democrat to Republican at a news conference at state GOP headquarters in Jackson, Miss., as U.S. Rep. Gregg Harper, R-Miss., listens Thursday, Nov. 10, 2011. The GOP already held the majority in the 52-member Senate. AP

Late in the evening just before the 2011 November general elections, then-Republican Gov. Haley Barbour was spotted sitting in a chair in the middle of the ornate, marble encased second floor rotunda of the Mississippi Capitol, holding a microphone and looking into a camera.

A closer look showed Barbour had an apparatus attached to his ear. He was doing a live remote — as they say in the business — answering questions from CNN about the upcoming state elections.

A Mississippi Highway Patrol security officer stood respectfully at a distance in the otherwise empty and cavernous rotunda.

After finishing his CNN interview, Barbour stopped to talk to a Mississippi reporter about the elections.

He correctly predicted his Republican Party would do well in the elections, most likely capturing the House, maintaining its majority in the Senate and winning most of the statewide offices. He stunningly predicted state Sen. Gray Tollison of Oxford, considered a leader among the Democrats, would switch parties. Tollison did change to the Republican Party almost immediately after being re-elected that November as a Democrat.

It had to be a satisfying time for Barbour, who was a leader in the Mississippi Republican Party when the joke was that its members could meet in a phone booth.

Barbour helped spur the Republican ascension with his $13 million campaign in 2003 to upend Democratic incumbent Gov. Ronnie Musgrove. The amount of money spent by the Barbour campaign shattered all records in Mississippi at the time and remains a record that most likely will not be broken during this year’s state elections.

The Republican dominance of the state would have occurred with or without Haley Barbour. But he was more than a politician who was in the right place at the right time. He helped to accelerate it.

By the time he left office in January of 2012, Republicans held seven of the eight statewide offices. But what they did not do in those pivotal 2011 elections and what Barbour did not predict they would do is defeat Democratic incumbent Attorney General Jim Hood.

Hood, a district attorney from the Oxford area in north Mississippi, first was elected attorney general in 2003 — the same election where Barbour defeated Musgrove.

As Republicans gained controlled of the state during the 2000s easily winning elections against Democrats who could not match their fundraising totals, Jim Hood continued to comfortably be re-elected.

This year, of course, Hood is running for governor. It is entirely conceivable that Mississippians could elect the Democratic Hood and seven Republicans for the lesser statewide offices.

There are other Democrats running for statewide offices. State Rep. Jay Hughes of Oxford has been running harder and longer than perhaps any other candidate for the open post of lieutenant governor against Republican Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann.

Democrats are running in seven of the eight statewide contests.

All of these candidates face tremendous odds against better funded and mostly better known Republican candidates in a state where the default position for a majority of Mississippians is to vote for the Republican candidate.

If there were odds given on this election, and perhaps there are since Mississippi has legalized sports book betting, Hood would have far better odds of winning than would his Democratic colleagues in other statewide races.

If he loses, it could be several elections before a Mississippi Democrat of Hood’s perceived political strength is in position to win a statewide office. For the next couple of election cycles, Northern District Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley might be the Democrats’ best hope if Hood is unsuccessful this year.

A shutout of statewide Democratic candidates in November could place Mississippi politics — at least for the statewide offices — in a position similar to where it was for much of its history where one party was so dominant that the general election meant little. For much of the 20th Century in Mississippi, the Democratic primary – not the November general election — was the pivotal election. The winner of the Democratic primary faced token, if any, Republican opposition in November.

That began to change in 1987 when Tupelo businessman Jack Reed ran a credible and competitive campaign against Democrat Ray Mabus for the office of governor and paved the way for Vicksburg contractor Kirk Fordice to defeat Mabus in 1991.

Just the thought of Republicans being close to such dominance now, no doubt, has Haley Barbour excited.

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.

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