By BOBBY HARRISON / Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – In 1987, a scant 18,853 people voted in the Republican primary that gave Tupelo businessman Jack Reed Sr. the gubernatorial nomination.
At the same time, more than 800,000 voted in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, won by Ray Mabus.
Later that year, Reed won more than 336,000 votes, or more than 45 percent of the total. In the process, he did something that was unheard of at the time: mounting a serious GOP challenge to the Democratic standard-bearer in the gubernatorial race.
Times have changed. Since 1987, participation in the Republican primary has steadily climbed while, for the most part, the opposite has happened in the Democratic primaries.
As of the 2007 election, more people still voted in the Democratic primary, but by a much smaller margin than in 1987.
In 2007, more than 197,500 voted in the Republican primary for governor when Haley Barbour faced only token opposition for re-election. More than 446,500 voted in the Democratic primary in which Jackson attorney John Arthur Eaves Jr. also faced token opposition.
“I think you will see the vote (in the Republican primary) continue to go up,” Barbour said recently. “I think you will see more and more counties with more voters in the Republican primary than the Democratic primary.”
In many ways, Mississippi is as solid a Republican state as any in the nation in national elections.
After last year month’s election, Republicans will hold both of the state’s U.S. Senate seats and three of the four U.S. House districts.
Seven of eight statewide officials are Republican, and will all be up for re-election in 2011, as well as legislative and county officeholders.
Despite the gains by Republicans, Democrats still control both the state House and Senate numerically and, though by a much smaller number, still get substantially more voters in their primaries for state candidates than do the Republicans.
Republican officials say the reason is that in most counties local candidates for such offices as supervisor and sheriff still run as Democrats. People choose to participate in the Democratic primary to vote for those candidates, but vote for Republicans on the statewide level in the general election.
State Republican Party officials say that is changing. They believe more and more local candidates will choose to run as Republicans, leading to an increase in their primary turnout.
Brad White, chairman of the state Republican Party, points out that 14 elected Democrats have switched to the Republican Party during the last two years. The most recent came last week when Central District Public Service Commissioner Lynn Posey joined the GOP.
Many conservative Democrats, White said, find it more difficult to win in their primaries as the number of participants declines, leaving voters who some would perceive as more liberal with a larger bloc of the primary vote.
As an example, he cited the defeat of longtime Insurance Commissioner George Dale in the Democratic primary in 2007.
That is also probably the primary reason Posey switched parties. Posey was a longtime state senator representing a black majority district. He won the Public Service Commission slot in 2007 with the strong support of the African-American political power structure in the Central District even though the Democratic primary had a black candidate.
Jamie Franks of Mooreville, state Democratic Party chairman, said Posey would not have the support of Democrats – black or white – in 2011 because they believe he has taken the side of the large utility companies at the expense of the consumers.
“The Democratic Party is alive and well. That will be seen in the 2011 elections,” Franks said recently. “We are going to field strong candidates from governor to constable, and we will play in all 82 counties.”
Unlike the recently completed 2010 election, he said, next year’s campaigns will be about state matters.
“This will not be a national election with national issues,” he said. “This will be about issues that affect Mississippians and how a Republican administration for the last eight years has worked to cut education and other important services.”
Barbour predicted that “the biggest leap to the left in public policy in history” by the Obama administration will drive more Mississippi candidates, and thus voters, to the Republican primary.
“This is a conservative state,” he said.
Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or firstname.lastname@example.org.