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Both Republicans, Democrats claim early victory in top races

Herring, Cole agree: races close, but…

With the general election little more than a week away, chairmen for both major party state committees are claiming an early victory in statewide races, particularly the hotly contested gubernatorial race. Recent poll results, both scientific and unscientific, have leaned to both sides.

“The only poll that matters to me is the one on November 4th,” said Mississippi Democrat Party chairman Rickey Cole. “We’re seeing a trend that it’s going to be close and will all depend on turnout. If Republicans mobilize their base and we don’t, then we’ll be left out, and vice-versa. It’s a question of getting people to the polls and I don’t think this negative campaigning is going to serve that purpose for either side.”

The Musgrove-Barbour match up is shaping up to be similar to the Pickering-Shows race last year, said Mississippi Republican Party chairman Jim Herring.

“It was close for a while and then people made their decisions and Pickering broke out,” he said, referring to the race between incumbents Chip Pickering and Ronnie Shows for the newly redrawn third congressional district. “When people focus on their decision, we believe they will break in favor of Barbour. In the lieutenant governor’s race, we believe that because of Barbara Blackmon’s own actions, Amy Tuck is going to win the election. On the attorney general’s and treasurer’s races, we believe we’re very competitive and voter turnout will be key.”

Four years ago, Republicans lost the statewide election by 8,000 votes, said Herring.

“The reason we lost is clearly because we didn’t do our job,” he said. “Flagship Republican counties like Rankin, DeSoto, Madison, the Gulf Coast and 10 or 12 others just didn’t turn out the vote. The difference between the vote in the governor’s race and the next year in the presidential race was striking. For instance, Rankin County voted 30,000 in 1999 for governor and 45,000 for president the next year. We weren’t motivated. If we get out the vote, we’ll win.”

The four heavily contested statewide races — governor, lieutenant governor, treasurer and attorney general — are evidence of Mississippi emerging from the final stage of the transition to a strong two-party state, said Cole.

“I’m not much of a gambling man, but I wouldn’t put money on any of them right now,” he said.

Money and politics

“The amounts of money being spent are just obscene and I’m a big believer in the need for us to reform our system,” said Cole. “I’m very interested in what North Carolina is doing with public financing of their judicial elections and what Arizona has done with public financing of some elections. I really believe we’ve got to create a system where candidates and public officials are free to spend their time communicating directly with their voters rather than spending four or five hours a day locked in a room begging for money.”

Some consultants say candidates have to compete in the marketplace to raise funds, and funds are demonstrative of support, but public office and public influence shouldn’t be for sale, said Cole.

“We’re one of the few democracies in the world that allows our system to be financed this way,” he said. “The incessant begging for money certainly irritates the contributors, if nobody else. To go from a couple of million 12 years ago, to $12 million or $13 million now in a governor’s race is indefensible, especially in a state with the needs as great as ours. There are better things to do with our money than buying TV ad after TV ad on ‘Wheel of Fortune.’ I don’t think that’s what Jefferson and Franklin had in mind.”

The recent robust debates between the two parties have helped remind voters of the issues, said Herring.

“It’s clear the governor, instead of defending his own record, has tried to make Haley Barbour the issue in the campaign when in reality the issue is Musgrove’s job performance and whether or not he deserves another four years,” he said. “All he can do is try to say a very successful Mississippian, who has been very successful on the national and international stage, and is advisor to the presidents, should be penalized because he is highly competent and has shown great leadership skills.”

Cole said Musgrove’s claim of being independent and conservative hasn’t hurt.

“Everybody with some sophistication understands what the governor means,” he said. “He means he’s independent in contrast to Haley, who’s been for hire to the highest bidder for some time now. Musgrove has proven to be an independent operator. He’s done things that are a disappointment to his friends but what he thought was best for Mississippi. He’s proven he’s not controlled by special interests. As far as the conservative claim, I would direct the observer to the budget estimates of last year’s budget. If the Legislature had followed the governor’s more conservative estimates, we wouldn’t be looking at the shortfall we have now.”

Legislative shift?

Herring said Republicans have heavily recruited for legislative seats, and the party is three votes short of parity in the Senate, the highest number of Republicans since Reconstruction.

“Our goal is to reach that parity,” he said. “I don’t know if we are going to be able to do it, but we’ll try hard. In the House, we hope to pick up four seats to reach 42 so that if they all vote together, they can sustain the governor’s veto. Right now, it’s 81-38-3 in the House and 29-23 in the Senate. We’ve made substantial gains there in the past few years.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at mbj@thewritingdesk.com.

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