- Associated Press - Friday, March 1, 2019

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - The top of the ticket for Mississippi’s 2019 statewide election could feature the most competitive governor’s race since 2003, but a dearth of strong Democratic candidates down the ballot shows the party’s continued weakness in Mississippi.

Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood and Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves will be favorites in their respective August 6 primaries, but each will have to get past some serious challengers. Hinds County District Attorney Robert Shuler Smith is challenging Hood in the Democratic field, along with seven lesser-known candidates. On the GOP side, former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Bill Waller Jr. and state Rep. Robert Foster of Hernando will try to upset Reeves.

Hood has been Mississippi’s only statewide elected Democrat for the last eight years. If he wins his party’s nomination, he will try to recapture the governor’s mansion for his party for the first time since Haley Barbour evicted one-term Gov. Ronnie Musgrove in what was Mississippi’s most expensive statewide election. His strength could be quite a contrast to 2015, when Democrats nominated unknown truck driver Robert Gray. He pulled not even a third of the vote as Bryant cruised to a second term. However, Shuler Smith could pose hurdles for Hood among African-American voters, especially because Hood’s office has unsuccessfully prosecuted Shuler Smith three times in recent years.

Reeves, who has been the lieutenant governor since 2012, has been building toward running for governor for years. He’s already raised $7 million, and has rolled out endorsements from dozens of Republicans across the state in recent weeks, including Bryant. It’s yet to be seen whether Waller, who’s a late entrant into the race, can show the acumen that led his father to the governor’s mansion in 1971. Foster, meanwhile, is trying to offer a fresh face to Republican voters.

Some candidates, facing no major party opposition, were functionally elected Friday. That includes Republican Auditor Shad White, who was appointed by Gov. Phil Bryant and has never run for office before. Also unopposed is Northern District Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley, a Democrat. The winner of a three-way Republican primary for transportation commissioner in the southern third of the state won’t face Democratic opposition. Democrats offered little-known candidates for some other statewide positions.

Most of the races didn’t change drastically at the deadline on Friday, although there were some late entrants. Republican elder Andy Taggart jumped into his party’s primary for attorney general, joining state Treasurer Lynn Fitch and state Rep. Mark Baker in seeking that nomination.

There are also hundreds of more races down the ballot. All 174 House and Senate seats will be on the ballot, although some lawmakers also don’t face opposition. Voters will also elect all the state’s county supervisors, sheriffs, district attorneys and other county officers.

Republican Party Chairman Lucien Smith said he expected his party to maintain its House supermajority, but would only predict a “strong majority” in the state Senate. As evidence of Republican strength, one of the last white Democrats, Rep. Nick Bain of Corinth, switched parties to qualify as a Republican on Friday. Longtime Democratic Rep. Steve Holland of Plantersville filed as an independent, in part to avoid a primary challenge, but also saying he was sick of partisanship and noting he had been one of three remaining elected white Democrats in Lee County.

And House Minority Leader David Baria, a Bay St. Louis Democrat, announced he was leaving the Legislature. It’s the third term in a row that the House Democratic leader has left the chamber, after House Speaker Billy McCoy retired in 2011 and Rep. Bobby Moak was defeated in 2015. Republicans now hold both those seats, and will be strong contenders to take over Baria’s seat.

“The majority of Mississippians know the kind of policy we’ve got,” said state Republican Chairman Lucien Smith. “We’re the only conservative party in the state and we’ll spend between now and November reminding voters of that.

Moak, now the state Democratic Party Chairman, said his party won’t be competitive everywhere, but intends to press Republicans to answer for their policies on things like schools and roads.

“Those folks that Democrats are running against are going to have to answer why they haven’t funded education,” Moak said.

Louisiana and Kentucky are the only states besides Mississippi that are scheduled to elect governors in 2019.


Follow Jeff Amy at http://twitter.com/jeffamy

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