LLOYD GRAY: State Democrats find themselves at historic lows

By Lloyd Gray/NEMS Daily Journal

Will Rogers’ often-quoted quip, “I’m not a member of any organized political party, I’m a Democrat” rings true nowhere more so than in Mississippi.
The state Democratic Party has never had an effective organizational structure for competing in a two-party system. Until recent decades, it didn’t have to. Mississippi was a one-party state.
But Republicans started getting organized in the state in the late 1960s, and their state party apparatus was professionally put together from the beginning. Democrats, meanwhile, spent as much time fighting among themselves as taking on Republicans.
The state Democratic Party has been virtually worthless to candidates running for statewide office since the Republicans started fielding candidates, and in many cases it’s been a liability.
So the state in which the party finds itself today is not a big surprise. It’s a wonder it didn’t happen sooner.
That state is this: Democrats currently hold only one of eight statewide offices. This year, they won’t even field a candidate for three of those offices – lieutenant governor, secretary of state and auditor. That is a historic first; never since Reconstruction has one statewide race, much less three, had no Democrats running. Of the 34 candidates who met last Tuesday’s qualifying deadline for statewide offices, only eight are Democrats.
It was only a little more than eight years ago, heading into the 2003 elections, that Democrats held seven of the eight statewide offices. Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck switched to the Republican Party in late 2002 for her re-election bid, joining then-Auditor Phil Bryant on the GOP side.
It was only the second time Republicans had ever held two statewide, state government offices simultaneously. The other was when Kirk Fordice was governor and Eddie Briggs lieutenant governor in 1992-96, and they didn’t particularly like each other. (Nor, for that matter, did the two U.S. senators who earlier blazed the trail for Republicans elected statewide, Thad Cochran and Trent Lott.)
Haley Barbour’s election as governor in 2003 was the Republican tipping point. This national party builder, who was in on the ground floor of Mississippi GOP organizing in the 1970s, ushered in a new era of unabashed partisan politics at the state and local levels. He more than anyone or anything is why this state has finally made a complete transition from one-party Democratic politics to complete Republican dominance at the highest levels.
Of course, Barbour couldn’t have done it alone. He needed help, and he got it, from the national level where his tenure has been marked by an increasing leftward lurch by the national Democratic Party. This has made it easier to force officeholders and candidates at all levels to quit clinging to the “Mississippi Democrat” label and increasingly align with national party philosophy rather than state and local tradition.
Is Mississippi on its way to becoming a different kind of one-party state? While we’ll likely never return to the days when one party could hold its meetings in the proverbial phone booth, Democratic officeholders are an endangered species in all but majority-black communities and districts in Mississippi. Yes, Democrats hold a majority in the state House and at county courthouses around the state. But that could change just as quickly as it did at the statewide level.
Philosophical issues are a big reason. But organizational competence and effectiveness are another. Between Democrats and Republicans, it’s simply no contest.
With the exception of Attorney General Jim Hood, whose chances for re-election are good, and perhaps Brandon Presley, the Northern District public service commissioner, there are no experienced, proven vote-getting Democratic state officeholders waiting for a possible opportunity to move up a notch. The Republicans have developed a good bench of electable talent in recent election cycles; the Democrats haven’t.
The two major Democratic gubernatorial contenders, Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny DuPree and Clarksdale businessman-lawyer Bill Luckett, are credible candidates with good government and business credentials, but either of them winning against Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant or Gulf Coast businessman Dave Dennis on the Republican side is a long shot.
“I vote for the person, not the party,” used to be a common saying in Mississippi. Today more people are looking first at the party and then at the person, and Democrats in Mississippi are in trouble as a result.
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or lloyd.gray@journalinc.com.