SID SALTER: Voters still have yet to fully engage in 2011 statewide elections

By Sid Salter

STARKVILLE – Perhaps it is the fact that Mississippi’s Democrats failed to field a full complement of candidates for the eight statewide elected offices this year. Democrats are contesting only four of the eight positions – conceding the offices of lieutenant governor, secretary of state, state auditor and agriculture commissioner to Mississippi’s GOP.
Or perhaps it’s the fact that in only one statewide race is a Democratic incumbent – Attorney General Jim Hood – favored over a Republican challenger.
Perhaps it is disaster fatigue, a sour economy, soaring gas prices or a host of other problems confronting Mississippi voters. Perhaps it’s the reality of years of tight state budgets trickling down to local governments. But the fact remains that the 2011 statewide campaign so far has the feel of folks sort of going through the motions.
To be sure, the Republican primaries for governor and lieutenant governor have shown some occasional sparks. But to date, GOP frontrunner Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant has run the measured campaign that frontrunners traditionally run. It’s a strategy that gives his challengers little oxygen as they try to make their challenges burn brighter.
Heading into the final month of the primaries, Bryant appears told be the only Republican candidate who can beat him. Challengers Dave Dennis, Hudson Holliday, Ron Williams and the rest are working. Dennis, Holliday and Williams are all three serious candidates with thoughtful positions on the issues and substantive, active campaigns.
But in a political environment that should give the decided advantage to those outside of government, Bryant has been able to outflank his three primary opponents with many Tea Party conservatives by beating his challengers to the punch on issues like abortion, guns, illegal immigration and taxes. In short, Bryant has made it difficult for those candidates to get to the right of him – and barring that in the Republican primary – it’s unlikely that Bryant’s lead can be overcome save a major mistake on his part down the stretch.
As predicted, the Republican lieutenant governor’s primary between state Sen. Billy Hewes and State Treasurer Tate Reeves remains the most heated and most interesting GOP primary battle. Reeves has used his superior campaign resources artfully while Hewes has worked hard to expand his name recognition. And if the GOP gubernatorial primary had hinged on Bryant’s turning of the Tea Party herd, the lieutenant governor’s race is a different exercise – one predicated on winning the support of the Republican establishment – particularly in the state’s top 10-to-15 Republican counties.
For Democrats, there are other primary considerations. At present, Clarksdale attorney and businessman Bill Luckett appears to clearly be in the best position from the standpoint of cash and campaign organization to take on the GOP nominee in November. But Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny Dupree seems to be gaining momentum in key Democratic-majority counties in Luckett’s natural Delta political base. For political analysts on both sides of the political fence, the great unanswered question in the Democratic gubernatorial primary is just what role 2nd District U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson will play in that primary.
Perhaps a more cogent question is whether race is the lowest common political denominator in the 2011 Democratic gubernatorial primary. Will African-American Democrats make their 2011 gubernatorial choices based on regionalism, factionalism, economic concerns or race?
All those are interesting political questions and here’s hoping that after July speeches at the Jacinto Courthouse, the Neshoba County Fair and other major state political stumps, the races will eventually heat up and draw more voter interest.
But from a partisan standpoint, the stars seem to be aligning for continued GOP success statewide and growth in the Mississippi House.
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at 662-325-2506 or ssalter@library.msstate.edu.