The Elephant in the room: As GOP grows, Democrats try to regroup

By Bobby Harrison / NEMS Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON – On the list of those running for the major statewide offices this year, the Democratic side is noticeably lacking in candidates.
Multiple Republicans already have announced either officially or unofficially they are running for the statewide offices that are expected to be vacant. A credible Republican, Public Safety Commissioner Steve Simpson, also is challenging Attorney General Jim Hood, Mississippi’s only statewide Democratic elected official.
Two Democrats, Clarksdale attorney and businessman Bill Luckett and Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny DuPree, have announced for the open office of governor.
But only six months before the Aug. 2 party primaries, the party’s candidates for the open offices of lieutenant governor, treasurer and commissioner of agriculture remain a mystery.
Mississippi Democrats were among the victims of the November’s elections. While it appears the Democrats on the national level – at least as reflected in Obama’s poll numbers – have rebounded, the beat-down has continued in Mississippi.
It seems that almost each week the state Republican Party holds a news conference to announce a new group of Democratic elected officials who have joined them.
“We’re having so many local Democratic elected officials requalifying as Republicans on the county level, it’s hard for us to keep up with the numbers,” Brad White, chairman of the state Republican Party, said at a recent news conference to announce that state Reps. Margaret Ellis Rogers of New Albany and Russ Nowell of Louisville were switching.
Nowell and Rogers are the fifth and sixth House Democrats who have switched since the 2007 elections. Still, Jamie Franks of Mooreville, chairman of the state Democratic Party, say the switches are not that surprising since all of them voted against Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, when he was re-elected speaker by a narrow margin in 2008.
“I think we have a state now with a true two-party system,” Franks said recently. “We have a lot of folks who believed in the Republican Party philosophy, but ran as Democrats to help them get elected. They are now running as Republicans.”

Breakdown by numbers
On paper, things may not be as bad for Mississippi Democrats as some would think. Despite the largest number of Republicans in the state House since the 1800s, Democrats still have a 69-52 advantage with one vacancy that will be filled by a Republican.
In the Senate, Republicans gained control for the first time since 1800s-era Reconstruction earlier this decade, thanks in large part to party switchers.
Democrats were able to gain a 28-24 advantage after the 2007 elections. But recent party switchers have tilted control back to the Republicans – 26-25 with one vacancy that has traditionally been a Democratic seat.
But in reality, Republicans have held control of the Senate since then-Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck switched to the Republican Party before the 2003 elections. Republican Phil Bryant is now lieutenant governor and presides over the Senate.
And that leads to perhaps the state Democrats’ most glaring weakness – the inability to produce winning statewide candidates. As of now, state Sen. Ezell Lee of Picayune is the only Democrat who has come forward as a possible candidate for the powerful post of lieutenant governor, and his ability to raise money would be dwarfed by his Republican opponents.
Former Democratic Gov. William Winter said he expects Democrats to offer credible candidates in those statewide races, but “the thing is it now takes so much money to run that it is unthinkable. I can understand the reluctance of some qualified and potential candidates to run because they don’t see how they can raise the money.”
Money, more than anything, might symbolize the difference in the state of affairs of Republicans and Democrats in Mississippi. Hood, as the incumbent attorney general, was able to more or less match his Republican opponent in campaign spending in 2007.
But no other Democrat on the statewide level came close to their Republican opponent in 2007 in campaign spending.
For instance, Republican Stacey Pickering, a state senator, spent more than $466,800 in winning the open seat of auditor in 2007. His Democratic opponent Mike Sumrall, a career auditor, spent a little more than $39,600.

The move toward the GOP
For years, Mississippi was essentially a Democrat-only state. Most trace the state’s allegiance to the Democratic Party back to the 1800s when Republicans led the Union against the South in the Civil War, followed by the hated-by-Southerners era of Reconstruction.
But in the 1960s that begin to change. Then-Democratic President Lyndon Johnson reportedly said when signing the Votings Rights Acts that the federal effort to ensure blacks the right of suffrage would lose the South for his party.
Mississippi, like many Southern states, began voting Republican in national elections in the 1960s. Slowly, voters also chose Republicans as Mississippi’s senators and congressmen.
In November, Mississippians broke with a long tradition of re-electing incumbents and voted out two Democratic U.S. House members. Alan Nunnelee of Tupelo replaced Travis Childers in the 1st District, while Steven Palazzo ousted Gene Taylor in the 4th.
As has been the case since the late 1980s, both of the state’s U.S. senators are Republican.
Now Mississippi’s only Democratic member of Congress is Bennie Thompson in the predominantly black 2nd District. But most local officials through the years have continued to run as Democrats.
Now the Republican success in national politics is spilling over to state and local politics. The state Republican Party said nearly 30 Democratic local officials have switched since the 2007 election.
Among them is Lee County Sheriff Jim Johnson, a prominent switch on the local level. Of course, the state Republican Party has been built in large part by party switchers since a generation ago almost all officials were Democrats.
Former state Republican Party Chair Jim Herring, a party switcher himself, used to say the church doors of the Republican Party are always open.

Shift in primary voting
With local officials switching, many believe that August’s primaries will mark the first time that the GOP contests draw more voters than the Democratic races.
That would be quite a feat considering that in 1987 more an 807,000 voted in the Democratic primary compared to a little more than 18,550 in the Republican primary.
In 2007, the breakdown was 446,746 in the Democratic primary compared to 197,647 in the Republican Primary.
While the Republicans still would have to make quite a jump to surpass Democrats in voters this year, it almost is certain the majority of voters in the Democratic Party will be black.
Republican Gov. Haley Barbour raised a few eyebrows at the news conference announcing the switch of Rogers and Nowell when he spoke of the his party’s diversity to an all-white audience.
In general terms, 90 percent of black voters in the state routinely vote Democrat. A smaller but still large majority of whites vote Republican in most, though not all, statewide elections.
Billy Mounger, a Jackson businessman and longtime Republican Party activist, said the racial divide of the parties “is more philosophical than racial.”
Rep. Bill Denny, R-Jackson, agreed.
“Honestly, I don’t see it as a breakdown by race. I see it is a breakdown by ideology,” he said
Rep. Bobby Shows, a Democrat from Ellisville, might have said what many believe – but do not say so bluntly when switching parties – that there is no room for white conservatives in the Democratic Party.
Winter, whose Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi bears his name, said, “ When the issue of race receded, I had hoped it would result in a strong two-party system and would not be a black and white structure. I think the strength of the party should be, ought to be bringing people together….and not letting the issue of race be such a strong factor.
“I had hoped we had gotten past that. If race remains a factor in Mississippi politics, we cannot progress as much as we should.”
Democrats’ future
Regardless of the reason, the state Republican Party is viewed as the party that is organized and on the uptick. The state Democratic Party as an organization is less well funded and is viewed, rightfully or wrongfully, as disorganized.
While the Republican Party apparatus provides various levels of supports for its candidates, a prominent Democratic official, who spoke on condition of anonymity and who has no plans of switching, said, “When you are a Democrat in Mississippi you are an island to yourself. You do not get any help.”
Still, House Democrats have taken matters into their own hands. Their political action committee is widely viewed as instrumental in helping elect enough Democrats in 2007 to ensured that McCoy would stay as speaker.
The PAC is still active. And while Democrats have seen their ranks thin through party switchers and may lose some more, they say that under the right circumstances they could pick up seats in the Senate and the House in this year’s elections.
And despite switchers, there are still a lot of Democratic local officials.
Rep. Donnie Bell of Fulton said he would run for re-election as a Democrat.
“I am a conservative Democrat, but a Democrat,” he said. “If it gets to the point where the Democratic Party doesn’t want people like me, that is a different story. But I will be a Democrat as long as the party is open to my ideas.”

Prominent Democrats who became Republican
December 2002 Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck
November 2010 Central District Public Service Commissioner Lynn Posey
December 2010 State Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith of Brookhaven
December 2010 State Rep. Bobby Shows of Ellisville
January 2011 Lee County Sheriff Jim Johnson
January 2011 State Rep. Margaret Ellis Rogers of New Albany
January 2011 State Rep. Russ Nowell of Louisville

Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or bobby.harrison@journalinc.com.