BOBBY HARRISON: Money fuels Mississippi's serious political contenders

By Bobby Harrison

JACKSON – On Aug. 2, less than half of people voting will select Mississippi’s next lieutenant governor.
The winner of the Republican primary between Treasurer Tate Reeves and Senate President Pro Tem Billy Hewes will face only token opposition in the November general election from Reform Party candidate Tracella Lou O’Hara Hill.
While turnout in the Republican primary has been on a steady rise in recent elections, and most likely will be again on Aug. 2, more Mississippians still will vote in the Democratic primary.
That means that a fraction of Mississippi’s voters – probably less than one-fourth – will vote for the next lieutenant governor.
The case can be made that the office of lieutenant governor – because of its unusual legislative and executive functions – is at least Mississippi’s second most important statewide office.
Long-time Republicans will say that Democratic voters know how they used to feel when almost all Mississippi elections were decided in the Democratic primary. The difference, of course, is in those days almost everyone ran as a Democrat and the percentage of people voting in the Republican primary was miniscule.
No, the Republican voters statewide could not have fit into a phone booth even though that was the joke at the time. But they could have fit into Tupelo’s BancorpSouth Arena with room to spare.
This year’s lieutenant governor’s election will be the first in the state where such an important post is filled by such a small percentage of people actually going to the polls.
That is no reflection on Reeves or Hewes. It is a reflection on the state Democratic Party.
Of course, the issue could be dealt with if the state had an open primary where people could vote for the candidate of their choice – a Republican for lieutenant governor and a Democrat for governor, for instance.
But there are drawbacks to an open primary system.
The issue surrounding the election for lieutenant governor – or more specifically the lack of a Democratic candidate – is one of money, or lack of money.
The Republican Party in Mississippi has most of the primary sources of campaign contributions – businesspeople, the medical profession, much of the legal profession and the financial profession – sewn up. It is difficult in most instances for a Democratic candidate to garner enough contributions to run for statewide office.
There is also an alarming lack of credible Democratic candidates for statewide office, but they are out there.
The sad truth is, if the candidate does not have personal wealth or access to campaign contributions, it is hard to wage a credible campaign. Media members are partially the blame because we equate access to money with electability.
While the media should take some of the blame, the truth is that successful candidates rely less on news coverage to get their message out and more on paid advertising.
The media could give equal coverage to a candidate who spends little or nothing on his and her campaign and one who spends millions and in almost every instance the candidate who makes the sizable financial investment is going to win – regardless of party.
That is where campaigns are today. Money elects candidates.
If Democrats have access to money they can still be competitive and win.
At least they could four years ago.
Attorney General Jim Hood is the sole statewide Democrat elected official. Yet four years ago, facing a well financed and aggressive challenger and a Republican statewide onslaught, Hood received more votes than any other statewide official – more than Gov. Haley Barbour, more than Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, more than Treasurer Reeves who had nominal opposition.
Yet, four years later the Democrats could not field a candidate to run for the important post of lieutenant governor.
That shows the importance of money in Mississippi elections.
Bobby Harrison is the Daily Journal’s Capitol Bureau chief. Contact him at bobby.harrison@journalinc.com or call (601) 353-3119.