Ballot shows big shake-up ahead in Mississippi’s leadership

Published 9:17 am Monday, March 4, 2019

Mississippi this year will have its biggest shake-up of statewide offices in a generation, no matter who wins in November.

Five of the eight current statewide elected officials are not seeking re-election, so there are open races for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state, and treasurer.

That’s a contrast to 2015, when all eight statewide officials were re-elected.
Since 1991, no more than four statewide offices have changed hands in any given election cycle.

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That is a good year to start looking at political transition because voters in 1991 elected Mississippi’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction. Kirk Fordice, a blunt-spoken contractor from Vicksburg, unseated Democratic Gov. Ray Mabus, who was trying to become the first to win back-to-back terms since the state lifted its ban on gubernatorial succession.

Fordice was one of three new statewide officials elected in 1991. Republican Eddie Briggs unseated Democrat Brad Dye to become lieutenant governor, and Democrat Steve Patterson won the open job for auditor.

In 1995, voters chose three new statewide officials. Democratic state Sen. Ronnie Musgrove unseated Briggs in the lieutenant governor’s race. State Rep. Eric Clark won an open race for secretary of state to succeed fellow Democrat Dick Molpus, who lost the governor’s race to Fordice. And, veterinarian Lester Spell was elected to succeed fellow Democrat Jim Buck Ross, who didn’t seek another term as agriculture commissioner. Patterson resigned in 1996, and Fordice appointed Republican state Rep. Phil Bryant as auditor.

The 1999 election brought two new statewide officials: Musgrove as governor and Democratic former state Sen. Amy Tuck as lieutenant governor. In an odd twist, the governor’s race was not decided until January 2000. With two lesser-known candidates also running, neither Musgrove nor the Republican nominee, former U.S. Rep. Mike Parker, won a majority of the popular vote.

Musgrove and Parker tied in Mississippi’s version of the electoral college: The state requires gubernatorial candidates to win in a majority of the 122 state House districts, and Musgrove and Parker won 61 each. Musgrove finished 8,342 votes ahead in the popular vote, and the Democratic-controlled state House of Representatives decided the race in his favor.

In 2003, voters chose three new statewide officials. Musgrove lost the governor’s race to Republican Haley Barbour, a Washington lobbyist and former Republican National Committee chairman. Jim Hood was elected attorney general to succeed fellow Democrat Mike Moore, who didn’t seek re-election. Republican Tate Reeves won the open race for state treasurer. Hood and Reeves are among those running for governor this year.

The 2007 election brought four new statewide officials. Tuck, who had become Republican in late 2002, was term-limited and couldn’t run in 2007. Bryant won the open race for lieutenant governor. Republican attorney Delbert Hosemann won the open race for secretary of state. Republican state Sen. Stacey Pickering won the open race for auditor. And Republican state Sen. Mike Chaney won the open race for insurance commissioner.

The 2011 election also brought four new statewide officials. With Barbour capped at two terms, Bryant was elected governor. Reeves won the race for lieutenant governor.

Republican attorney Lynn Fitch won the open race for treasurer. And Republican state Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith won the open race for agriculture commissioner, succeeding Spell, who had been elected as a Republican in 2007 after switching parties two years earlier. This was the first time two women had won statewide office at the same time in Mississippi.

Although all eight statewide officials won again in 2015, two moved to other jobs in 2018. After Bryant chose Hyde-Smith to fill a vacant U.S. Senate seat, he appointed Republican state Rep. Andy Gipson as agriculture commissioner. Pickering became head of the state Veterans Affairs Board, and Bryant named Republican attorney Shad White as auditor.

Emily Wagster Pettus has covered Mississippi government and politics since 1994.