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Can Republicans retain Senate, gain House in 2007?

Editor’s note: This is the second of three articles that the co-authors of “Mississippi Politics: The Struggle for Power, 1976-2006,” are writing for the Mississippi Business Journal. Last week the authors examined the elections for statewide office, and the article this week analyzes the Senate elections. Next week Nash and Taggart will write about the House campaigns, including the race for Speaker.

History was made on March 1, 2007. That was the day when Biloxi Senator Tommy Gollott switched from the Democratic to the Republican Party, thus giving the GOP numerical control of the state Senate — 27 Republicans to 25 Democrats. Not since 1875 have the Republicans controlled either chamber of Mississippi’s Legislature.

The overriding issue in this year’s legislative elections is whether the Republicans can retain control of the Senate and gain control of the House. And while that is certainly important from the perspective of the kinds of public policies the Legislature will enact, the chief reason this year’s legislative elections are critically important is the looming reapportionment of the entire Legislature.

In three years the federal government will conduct the 2010 Census of Mississippi. The Legislature that is elected in 2007 will convene in 2011 to redraw the Senate and House district boundaries (i.e., to account for populations changes that have occurred since the last census in 2000).

The party that controls the Legislature controls how those district lines will be redrawn and which party those boundaries will favor. Republicans know this from hard experience. After the 2000 Census forced the relocation of four House districts and one Senate district from areas of the state that had lost population to those areas that had experienced rapid growth, all five incumbents who saw their districts disappear were Republicans.

In the Senate, there are 52 seats. Of the 27 districts now represented by Republicans, Haley Barbour carried 26 of those districts in 2003. Of the 25 Democratic districts, Haley Barbour won 8 of them.

Up for grabs?

While these numbers would appear to favor Barbour and the Republicans, the actual campaign lineup shows that the question for control is actually up for grabs. Of those eight Democratic districts that Barbour carried, the Republicans recruited candidates in only four of those districts, and two of the four are considered long shots.

On the other hand, in the one district that Barbour failed to carry in 2003 and that is currently represented by a Republican — Ralph Doxey’s Northwest Mississippi senate district — the Democrats have four candidates in the primary, two of whom might have the strength to defeat Doxey.

The Democrats also recruited strong contenders in the open seat vacated by retiring Republican incumbent Travis Little and against three Republican incumbents (Senator Joey Fillingane, who just won his seat in a special election and whose South Mississippi district Barbour carried by only 52%; Sen. Shannon Walley, who switched from the Democratic to the Republican party on the day he qualified; and Sen. Richard White, who lost his bid for re-election in the 2003 elections but won it back in a disputed special election, and who represents a Hinds County district that is in transition).

Of the 52 Senate districts, only 21 will pit Republicans against Democrats. But of that number, only five or six are seriously in contention unless the Republicans can overcome the odds in one or more of the 25 districts now represented by Democrats.

Playing by whose rules?

In addition to reapportionment, the other prize available to the party in control of the Senate is the power to draft the rules governing the body. It is the rules that give the Lt. Governor the power to appoint committee members and chairmen. It is the rules that give the Lt. Governor the power to control the flow of legislation and to rule on questions of parliamentary practice.

Historically, the Senate has been willing to vest in the Lt. Governor these broad exercises in authority, regardless of the political party of the Lt. Governor or of the majority of the Senate. In an increasingly partisan Legislature, it remains to be seen whether this historical pattern would be followed in the unlikely event that November’s elections result in a Lt. Governor of a party different from the majority of the Legislature.

The race for Lt. Governor will be one of the statewide races garnering rapt attention this year. In the Republican Primary, the candidates are Senator Charlie Ross and State Auditor Phil Bryant, both from Rankin County. State Representative Jamie Franks, from Lee County, is unopposed in the Democratic Primary. Both of the Republican candidates have support from the business community and from traditional Republican activists. And while Ross currently leads in fundraising, we know from internal polls that Bryant is ahead in the race for name identification, having two successful statewide races already under his belt. In the 2003 Republican Primary, 85% of the total vote came from just 16 counties, so grassroots GOP support, more than money, may make the difference in this race.

The election will be close, so the temptation for the two candidates to go negative on each other will be hard to resist. If that happens, then Jamie Franks will be the beneficiary. Franks also enjoys the luxury of an uncontested primary and a personal checkbook that can afford to finance a seven-figure campaign. Nonetheless, the Barbour coattails and the tendency of Mississippi voters to choose Republicans in open seat statewide elections make Franks the underdog in this race.

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