BILL MINOR: Dying Democratic control and Barbour loom over 2011 vote

By Bill Minor

JACKSON – Is this the year of the Great Realignment of the state’s political power, the conversion of Mississippi from a one-party Democratic state to a one-party Republican state?
Based on Mississippi’s political history, you would think such a question outrageous. No longer. In fact, maybe the conversion has already happened and just wasn’t denoted as a political landmark.
Those of us who watch for political transitions and have written about them have over the years concentrated on tracking Mississippi’s transition into a two-party state, in itself a worthy subject for history books. But now, we’re talking about the epicenter of Mississippi’s political power having shifted one notch to the right, into Republican control. That’s a long way from the old joke that the state Republican convention could be held in a telephone booth.
Perhaps the transition actually began in the 1948 Dixiecrat rebellion when state Democrats withheld the state’s presidential electoral votes from the national ticket for the first time in six decades while adamantly denying they were helping the hated Republican Party. No question, 1964 was a landmark when Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona carried the state with an incredible 88 percent of the vote over President Lyndon Johnson, solely because Goldwater had voted against the Civil Rights Act. (Remember, blacks were then still disfranchised.) When the 1965 Voting Rights Act put thousands of blacks on the rolls, the exodus of Democrats to the GOP began.
For some time as a political writer I have said that the GOP was Mississippi’s only “organized” political party. State Democrats often have been badly disjointed, maybe even worse this quadrennial statewide election year as they have fielded fewer candidates for state office than ever.
Meantime, it’s obvious that the Republicans are making a full-court press to win more of the 174 seats in the Legislature than ever – fielding 120 candidates in the House and 72 in the Senate. Forty-six of those GOP candidates will be facing each other in Republican primaries.
Already, Republicans hold 53 of the 122 seats in the House and 27 of the Senate’s 52 seats in what has been a gridlocked Legislature unparalleled in Mississippi political history, a political paralysis that began with the arrival of Republican Haley Barbour in the governor’s office. Without question, Barbour is the most professional political operative ever handed the reins of state government.
So gridlocked was the Legislature that it failed to draw new lines for legislative districts – even after a plan had passed both branches and then was scuttled allegedly by Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, pushed by Barbour. Now, since a federal court panel has ordered 2011 elections in existing districts, we’ll see lawmakers being elected from badly malapportioned districts. Are we capable of self-government?
While the 2011 political landscape in Mississippi emits a distinct odor of a dying Democratic hegemony, Marty Wiseman, the Stennis Institute director at Mississippi State, who keeps a finger on the pulse of political thinking in the hinterlands, thinks there’s still salvation for Democrats in the rural areas of the state. While Democrats may take a beating for state offices and even the Legislature, he believes “they can still hold a preponderance of officials at the county level.”
Even as he leaves the governor’s office, the question remains: Is Barbour going to keep a hand in the Republican machine he has built in Mississippi? That raises the other logical question: If Phil Bryant becomes governor, will he continue to be a puppet with Haley pulling the strings?
Columnist Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman at edinman@earthlink.net.