SID SALTER: Election’s intrigue centers mostly on control of state House

By Sid Salter

STARKVILLE – Taking a look down the 2011 Mississippi general election ballot, an honest assessment would be that the only significant intrigue or uncertainty lies in which party will control the Mississippi House of Representatives at the end of the day.
Will this be the year that the GOP wins control of the House or will the Democrats maintain their grip on the chamber as the last bastion of their party’s strength in state politics? For both parties, there is much riding on the outcome of that question.
Control of the House Speaker’s post is one political plum that has been denied Republicans since they began their dominance of statewide office politics in the last decade. As late as 1999, Democrats dominated the statewide offices and held the leadership posts in both the state House and Senate.
But a decade later, only Attorney General Jim Hood and House Speaker Billy McCoy remained as Democrats among stateside officers or the legislative leadership. McCoy is retiring from the Legislature and Republican Lt. Gov.-Elect Tate Reeves is already all but officially ensconced as the leader of the state Senate.
At this juncture, Republicans appear set to make gains in the House but there is doubt that the GOP will be able to win an outright majority. A more likely scenario is that the Democrats prevail, but that the new speaker will be forced by the near parity of both parties in the House to reach a more equitable “power sharing” between Democrats and Republicans in order to effectively govern.
Historically, the House speaker and the lieutenant governor have been powerful forces in Mississippi with the governor having a more ceremonial role and the power of the bully pulpit. The emergence of Gov. Haley Barbour as a strong governor despite a state constitution that dictates a weaker governor had an impact on those roles over the last eight years.
Beyond the partisan battle for control of the House lie questions about whether Reeves and the new House speaker mean to reassert the Legislature’s powers in the post-Barbour era. The sense among the legislators this writer has heard from is that the state is headed more in the direction of the old paradigm.
But in order for that old paradigm to be successful, the House has to be split less by partisanship than it has been the last eight years. The new speaker will almost certainly have to rely on bipartisan support – and therefore a sharing of power in the committee system.
Statewide, Republican Phil Bryant is the prohibitive favorite as the next governor over quality Democratic contender Johnny DuPree, although DuPree has run an effective campaign. The GOP’s Reeves, as noted, just faces formalities. Incumbent Auditor Stacey Pickering, incumbent Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, and incumbent Insurance Commissioner Mike Chaney, all Republicans, face little or no opposition. Incumbent Hood appears to have weathered the challenge of Republican Steve Simpson.
In the open seat races, Republican Lynn Fitch is expected to defeat Democrat Connie Moran while Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith is expected to defeat perennial Democratic candidate Joel Gill.
But it remains the outcome of the race for control of the House – and the House speaker’s race to follow – that is getting the lion’s share of armchair quarterbacking and prognostication as the election nears.

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at 601-507-8004 or sidsalter@sidsalter.com.