Red or Blue?

by Becky Gillette

Published: August 25,2008

Few things on the Mississippi Gulf Coast remained unchanged after August 29, 2005, and that includes the political dynamics of one of the largest, most prosperous areas of the state.

There was widespread unhappiness with the bungled response to the disaster by FEMA and with difficulties getting insurance companies to pay for damages. And Gov. Haley Barbour was credited with being effective at bringing in huge sums of federal aid for rebuilding. But how those factors affect the Democratic-Republican makeup of the Coast is not clear.

“There is no doubt there have been quite a few people moving into and out of the coastal area since Hurricane Katrina,” said Melton Harris, District Two supervisor for Jackson County and former long-time chairman of the Jackson County Democratic Executive Committee. “This next election will be a good opportunity to find out if those who have moved into the area are more aligned with the Democratic or Republican Party. That hasn’t been tested before.”

Harris said U.S. Rep. Gene Taylor, a Democrat, is “cast in concrete.” It would be difficult to unseat the maverick Democrat who has managed to be re-elected even while the Coast has primarily voted Republican in other races.

With incumbents usually heavily favored for re-election, the U.S. Senate race between Sen. Roger Wicker, who was appointed to fill the unexpired term of Sen. Trent Lott, and former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, has generated significant interest.

“From what I hear, a lot of folks are very concerned about seeing some new faces representing us, and are very interested in the outcome,” Harris said.

Considering the population of the Coast, it has been notable that few Coast residents have even run for statewide offices in recent years. Harris points out that Mike Moore was the last statewide elected official who came from the Coast.\

“There is no doubt the coastal area doesn’t see many statewide elected officials,” Harris said. “While the coastal area has a reputation in the past for being the better off financial part of the state, it is less well off in terms of political representation.”

Proverbial stepchild?

The Coast has often felt like the red-headed stepchild of the state, receiving the short end of the stick on issues such as highway construction financing.

“I think the legislators in the House and Senate from the northern part of the state still carry a big stick,” said George Birdrow, chairman of the Harrison County Republican Executive Committee. “There is no question about that. A lot of them have tenure. They seem to be well organized and stick together. But we have a really outstanding group of Republican legislators from the Coast. We are starting to get some tenure. Our Coast legislators realize they have to stick together, too, to have more influence in the state. Sen. Billy Hewes is pro tem of Senate, which is a feather in our cap. Sen. Tommy Gollott, who has a lot of tenure, has changed parties and come over to the Republican side. I think our legislative delegation is doing as good a job as they have ever done.”

Birdrow doesn’t think Hurricane Katrina has changed the political climate of the Gulf Coast, which has been a stronghold for Republicans. He is cognizant of the national dynamics involving low popularity ratings for President Bush that are making it tougher for Republican candidates, which could have had an impact on Republicans losing the seat in the U.S. House vacated when Rep. Roger Wicker was appointed to the U.S. Senate to replace Trent Lott. That First District seat was won by Democrat Travis W. Childers. But Birdnow said up to now, they haven’t seen a political shift in Harrison County.

“From a Republican perspective, we have been very lucky and blessed in Harrison County,” Birdrow said. “We still hold a majority of seats whether mayor, board of supervisors or election commission. Up to this time, we haven’t seen the political winds change in Harrison County. As far as the Senate race goes, I do think Sen. Wicker has a horse race on his hands. But I certainly think the Coast in general and Harrison County in particular will support Sen. Wicker. I think he can get a significant part of the vote in this part of the state.”

Birdrow said the amount of federal aid for hurricane recovery secured by Barbour has certainly shed a favorable light on the Republican Party in the state.

In fact, Barbour has had such a huge influence on strengthening the Republican Party in Mississippi that it is hard to imagine what will happen when he finishes his second term as governor.

Color coded

Mississippi has sometimes been called “the reddest of the Red States,” with red referring to the Republican Party. And the Coast has been considered one of the reddest parts of Mississippi. But Dr. Marty Wiseman, director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University, doesn’t think Mississippi is as red as it gets credit.

“Republicans have found a way to get the lion’s share of their base out to the polls,” Wiseman said. “They are better organized than the Democrats. In 2003 and 2007, Haley Barbour brought in high-tech organization and money-raising skills the likes of which we have never seen before in the state — something unmatched anywhere in the country — and Republicans benefitted from it. After his second term, Barbour may go back to Washington, where he had a very successful career as a lobbyist, and the question is, ‘Will the Republicans be capable of maintaining that organization?’ It will be interesting to see how much of that get-out-the-vote process has become habitual in the Republican Party.”

Wiseman said there are still a lot of Democrats in a state that is 37% African American, which votes 92% Democratic. Mississippi previously had a long history of being the most Democratic of the Democratic states. And Wiseman said there are still a fair number of those “yellow dog” Democrats in the state.

“On a few issues like gun control and abortion, Republicans have found a way to borrow those voters,” Wiseman said. “Travis Childers showed you could get them back if you have the right message.”

Running the numbers in 2010

As far as the overall political clout for the Coast, a lot hinges on the 2010 Census. The Coast was on a major growth trajectory when Hurricane Katrina hit, and it isn’t yet known how much of the population that evacuated has returned. Before Katrina, the Coast was one of the fastest-growing areas in the state, and likely would have picked up seats in the Mississippi Legislature with the 2010 Census.

The Delta lost population in the 2000 Census and likely has continued to lose population compared to other areas of the state. The Coast before Katrina was gaining in population and that could have had a statewide influence since the Coast tends Republican. The GOP could have picked up more seats in the Legislature.

The Coast will likely get back to the population level seen before Katrina, but it isn’t known if that will happen by the critical 2010 Census.

“The growth of the Coast was delayed,” Wiseman said. “I think at some point in time it will catch up and gain that population back, but will it re-establish itself as a high-growth area prior to 2010? DeSoto County has kept growing and we are probably going to see a few seats in both the House and the Senate gravitate towards that general area.”

Wiseman thinks of the Coast as being Republican leaning, but very independent. That’s why Democrat Gene Taylor can continue to be re-elected to the U.S. House.

“His personality and approach to politics fits the Coast: ‘I’m going to be own man and do my own thing,’” Wiseman said. “Although I would say on any given day the Republicans may hold sway down there, it is likely when everything is said and done, there may be a different mix down there pre-Katrina and post-Katrina regarding political leanings. I know New Orleans will have a tendency for a while to be less Democratic because mostly only people with money have been able to come back, redo houses and establish living arrangements down there. I might be overstepping the logic if I said that about the Mississippi Gulf Coast. A lot depends on how fast housing gets re-established for the general and working class population. There needs to be affordable housing for lower- and middle-income and working-class families. That has been the big hangup for a variety of reasons.”

Musgrove or Wicker?

Regarding the Senate race, Musgrove is considered to have more statewide name recognition due to three previous statewide campaigns and serving as governor. Roger Wicker is not as well known on the Coast.

“Wicker has been campaigning a lot in the southern part of state because of that,” Wiseman said. “If Wicker can get voters to associate him with special dollars appropriated after Katrina during his time on the U.S. House Appropriations Committee, he will create some advantage for himself.”

The wild card for Musgrove could be that more Democrats are expected to turn out to vote in the election because Barack Obama is on the ballot. Wiseman doesn’t think Musgrove would have that much chance if Obama wasn’t serving as a turnout machine for the Democrats.

However, since this is a special election, the candidates won’t be running as Democrat or Republican. There will be no “D” or “R” after their name. Therefore, it will take education to make sure voters know that Musgrove is a Democrat.

“Usually you can just recommend people go in and vote Democratic,” Wiseman said. “If the Democrats get a great turnout and 100% to vote for Obama, but if they are not instructed how to handle Musgrove/Wicker race, that could make a big difference.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at 4becky@cox.net.

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