More than 450 candidates are vying for 174 legislative seats in the 2003 elections, and BIPEC (Business and Industry Political Education Committee) recently issued a recommendation list for incumbents and challengers who are considered “best for business.”
“The recommendations for House and Senate races were generated so organizations can best invest their money,” said BIPEC president Dick Wilcox.
Based on a scale of zero to 100, two Republican incumbents tied for the top score of 97 — Alan Nunnelee of Tupelo, who represents Senate District 6, and Richard White of Terry, who serves Senate District 29. Two Democrat incumbents shared the lowest score of 61 — Warner McBride of Courtland, who represents House District 10, and Bobby Moody of Louisville, who serves House District 43.
“The grade is composed of two factors and balanced with a complex formula,” said Wilcox. “One factor is based on votes they cast that are important to business. Another factor is the champion index, a subjective score. We ask 50 to 60 people who work with legislators to give us a score based on how willing they are to, well, be objective. It’s not a personality score, but one based on an attitude like, ‘OK, we may not agree on issues, but they’re always open, nice, and listen. If they disagree, they’re honest.”
BIPEC also grades every House and Senate district, and compares the grade to the candidates’ scores, said Wilcox.
“For example, Bobby Moody’s score is 12 to 15 points higher than his district score,” he said. “Bobby’s been there a long time and his score has been higher, and there are a lot of reasons for that. Sometimes when folks become committee chairs and therefore part of the leadership, their voting pattern changes a little bit because, in order to be part of that leadership, they don’t get to act as an individual quite as much.”
Some factors, such as the voting in the special session on tort reform last fall, drastically reduced the grades of many candidates. For example, the score for state representative Joe Warren, a Democrat from Mt. Olive and chairman of the education committee, dropped to 34. His overall grade was weighted at 51, but it was not high enough for him to be recommended for re-election. His challenger, Gaines Reynolds, a Republican from Seminary, has been recommended by BIPEC for the House District 90 post.
“The tort reform vote was a die-in-the-ditch issue,” said Wilcox. “It’s been a long time since a single issue has had that much unity within the business community. Having that much importance placed on it demanded we give it a higher factor in our grading process. That alone knocked Joe Warren down pretty good and made him more vulnerable, especially if you look at his district and how his district responded to that. A lot of people wanted Joe to go the other way, but he sided with lawyers because he is a lawyer versus siding with professional people.”
When asked if re-elected, would Warren be considered a viable candidate for House Speaker, Wilcox said he didn’t know. “It’s not a factor as far as we’re concerned,” he said.
Because challengers like Reynolds do not have voting records, BIPEC determines the score based on results of questionnaires completed by their associates and other data.
“Gaines is a small businessman,” said Wilcox. “He started out in a blue-collar construction role with a hammer in his hand and ended up owning logging and timber businesses and doing construction management work. His wife works in management for a home health agency, and they’re a family with business interests that meet payrolls, pay liability insurance and understand how jobs are created. His view of the world is different from the perspective of a small town attorney.”
BIPEC also investigated candidates’ families and background “because all of that shapes an individual as to how they think,” said Wilcox. “If someone is from a family with a business background, they’ll have a different perspective than someone whose father was active in the labor union movement.”
In the last two elections, the turnover rate has hovered around 15%, but will probably reach 25% during this cycle, based on a higher number of retirements and a projected higher number of defeated incumbents, said Wilcox.
“There’s a little more voter attitude of ‘let’s make some changes this time,’ partly because of the economy and partly because the Legislature as a collective body has not gotten the job done,” he said. “In the last two years, you’ve had the flag vote, and rather than legislators dealing with it, they quickly put it on a referendum ballot and voters felt legislators should’ve dealt with it. You’ve had the redistricting issue, where legislators got into a squabble and the courts had to decide. Then the tort reform special session took 83 days because they all got wrapped up in political jockeying. The Senate was trying to do one thing, and the House was the roadblock because the makeup of the House was more diverse and polarized. A lot of folks felt like the House leadership didn’t do its job, resulting in another failure.”
Incumbents generally defeat themselves, Wilcox pointed out.
“They aren’t necessarily defeated by challengers,” he said. “They have to build up a lot of negatives on their own until voters retire them.”
Party lines are about even, with Republicans perhaps gaining an edge, said Wilcox.
“There’s a closer parity than in the past,” he said. “Our research shows that people who still identify themselves as Democrats voted Republican in a lot of races, and more people are identifying themselves as Republicans. Having a politically polarized environment has caused elected officials a lot of grief because they’re having to choose sides. Staying the middle alienates both sides, a fact that legislators learned in the tort reform special session.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at firstname.lastname@example.org.