JACKSON — In many ways, the 2003 gubernatorial campaign was the birth of the modern powerhouse Mississippi Republican Party.
Republican Haley Barbour of Yazoo City took what he had learned through decades in Washington, D.C., in numerous capacities, including as the political director for President Ronald Reagan, and focused it on incumbent Democratic Gov. Ronnie Musgrove.
Musgrove ran a competent campaign, probably good enough to win against most opponents, but the combination of Barbour’s unprecedented campaign fundraising and Barbour’s campaign expertise was too much for the incumbent to overcome.
It should be pointed out that Musgrove had some glaring weaknesses that Barbour could exploit. The biggest weakness probably centered around the fact his first term coincided with the beginning of low-paying manufacturing jobs leaving the country. Mississippi was hit particularly hard by that exodus. Then there was Musgrove’s support for changing the flag — an unpopular position among a majority of voters. And, of course, his divorce in the middle of his first term in the Governor’s Mansion did not help.
In that election, 894,487 people voted for governor. No election for governor in Mississippi has surpassed that total.
And truth be known, it was the state’s last competitive campaign for governor. In 2007, trial attorney John Arthur Eaves Jr. put up a spirited fight against Barbour’s re-election, but he never really had a chance.
Then-Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny DuPree made history in 2011 when he became the first African-American in Mississippi to win the Democratic nomination for governor. But DuPree ran a cautious general election campaign and never posed a serious threat to Republican Phil Bryant.
Then in 2015, truck driver Robert Gray, who didn’t even vote for himself in the Democratic primary, won that primary for governor. Gray seemed like a nice enough guy, but in reality it was an embarrassing low point for the state party.
In terms of the governor’s election, there has not been much drama going into the November general election since the Barbour vs. Musgrove race.
The anticipation is that this year will be different. Attorney General Jim Hood, Mississippi’s only statewide elected Democrat, has been leading Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves in recent polling. The two are the favorites to win their party’s nomination for governor, though both face potential landmines in their primary elections.
But if both advance, it surely will be the most interesting gubernatorial election since 2003 and one where there will be real differences.
Take for example the issue of taxes.
Hood has criticized the business tax breaks that Reeves has been instrumental in passing through the Legislature. Reeves touts those tax breaks as well as the tax cut on personal income. He believes such tax cuts will spur economic growth
Hood, on the other hand, wants to eliminate the sales tax on food because he believes such an effort will help more low-income people.
Or in the area of health care, Hood is an unabashed supporter of expanding Medicaid to cover primarily the working poor as is allowed under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare.
In January, Reeves said in response to a question about why he opposed Medicaid expansion, “I will remain opposed to any call for Obamacare expansion, no matter what other name or what other form you want to call it. I am opposed to Obamacare expansion in Mississippi because it is not in the best interest of Mississippi taxpayers.”
They have different views on multiple other issues, including education funding and whether to change the controversial state flag that includes the Confederate battle emblem as a prominent part of its design.
Reeves said he would only support changing the flag through a statewide vote. Hood has said that he believes the Legislature should step up and make that decision.
“If the flag does not represent our citizens today, then we, as a body, should select one that does,” Hood said at one point.
The differences in a Reeves-Hood election would be significant and, unlike recent Democratic nominees for governor, Hood will have the name identification and ability to defend his positions.
The result could be a turnout that exceeds Musgrove and Barbour.
• Bobby Harrison is the senior Capitol reporter for Mississippi Today, a nonprofit news organization based in Jackson.