Analysis: Dems' turnout slips since '07 primary

By Emily Wagster Pettus/The Associated Press

JACKSON — More people voted Democratic than Republican in Mississippi’s primaries last week, but that doesn’t mean the Dems should break out the bubbly. In fact, the numbers might give them reason for heartburn.

Turnout in the Democratic primary for governor dropped significantly from four years ago, while turnout in the Republican primary rose more than 40 percent.

Records show 446,746 votes were cast in the 2007 Democratic primary for governor. With 99 percent of precincts reporting from last week, The Associated Press tallied 394,663 votes — a number that could change a bit as affidavit and absentee ballots are added to the final tally before numbers are certified.

Turnout for the Republican governor’s primary in 2007 was 197,647. This year, the unofficial tally with 99 percent of precincts reporting was 281,719.

That’s an 11.7 percent decrease for the Democrats and a 42.5 percent increase for the Republicans.

Democrats dominated Mississippi politics for generations, but those numbers raise a question: Is Mississippi on its way back to being a one-party state, this time Republican rather than Democratic?

It’s worth asking in a year when Democrats didn’t even bother to field candidates for three of the eight statewide offices — lieutenant governor, auditor and secretary of state. Democrats still dominate in most county-level offices, but they’re faltering on the statewide level.

“There are so many Democratic voters out there that, if organized, could be right there eyeball-to-eyeball with the Republicans,” political scientist Marty Wiseman, director of the Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University, said after last week’s primaries.

For example, Wiseman said, Mississippi’s population is 37 percent black, and black voters traditionally turn out in much larger numbers for Democrats than Republicans. Then there are the people of all races who say they vote for the person rather than the party and probably choose some D’s and some R’s when they have a long general-election ballot.

Recent behavior of Republican candidates also brings to mind a single-party state. In some GOP primaries this season, Republican candidates attacked each other with the kind of energy they normally save for jousting with members of another party.

Tate Reeves and Billy Hewes traded verbal jabs for weeks in the Republican lieutenant governor’s primary, before Reeves won the nomination this past Tuesday.

In the northwestern corner of the state, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Doug Davis of Hernando was unseated by Republican challenger Chris Massey of Nesbit, who said Davis had brought too little money to the fast-growing DeSoto County schools.

On the Gulf Coast, Republican Sen. Tommy Moffatt of Gautier was defeated by former assistant district attorney Brice Wiggins of Pascagoula, who campaigned on improving early childhood education and stabilizing the insurance market.

The current lieutenant governor, Phil Bryant of Brandon, easily dispatched four opponents to win last week’s Republican primary for governor. Unofficial results show Bryant received 59.3 percent of the vote, winning all but three counties. Construction executive Dave Dennis won his own home county on the coast, Harrison, and the one next door, Hancock. Pearl River County supervisor Hudson Holliday won on his home turf.

The Democratic nomination for governor will be settled by an Aug. 23 runoff between Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny DuPree and Clarksdale businessman and attorney Bill Luckett. They were the top vote-getters in a Democratic primary that included two other candidates who ran very low-budget campaigns.

Bryant has collected the most campaign cash in the race this year. By the July 26 campaign-finance reporting deadline, he had spent $3.1 million and still had $688,119 cash on hand. Luckett reported he had spent $843,030, with $261,887 on hand. DuPree reported spending $430,180, with $90,358 on hand.

Barring some unexpected fundraising bonanza, the eventual Democratic nominee will be hard pressed to approach Bryant’s financial resources to reach out to voters through TV and radio commercials, newspaper ads, billboards, direct mail, robocalls and social media.