Studio portrait of Sid Salter. (photo by Beth Wynn / © Mississippi State University)
By: Sid Salter
My active observations of Mississippi statewide elections stretch back to the 1970s and what remains fascinating to me is how little the issues have changed since those days.
When flamboyant Democrat Cliff Finch and moderate Republican Gil Carmichael squared off in 1975, Finch used a black lunch box to symbolize his slogan as “the working man’s friend” along with stints driving a bulldozer or sacking groceries while the cameras were rolling.
Carmichael offered progressive policies and railed against entrenched Democrats while calling for a more businesslike approach to the operation of state government. Black independent Henry Kirksey was on the general election ballot as well and was a credible candidate.
Finch shocked the Democratic establishment by upsetting William Winter in the primary, then beat Carmichael in the general election with 52 percent of the vote. Carmichael’s 45 percent showing against Finch signaled a coming end to the single-party dominance enjoyed up until that time by Mississippi Democrats.
But the bedrock issues of that campaign, sans the lunchbox antics, were public education, healthcare, roads and taxes. Now some 44 years later, the bedrock issues of the 2019 gubernatorial campaign are virtually the same issues.
Now, as then, public school teachers believe they are overworked, underpaid and underappreciated. Now, as then, a sizeable segment of Mississippi’s population are either uninsured or underinsured and lack access to rudimentary healthcare other than hospital emergency rooms.
The difference now and then is that now, rural Mississippi hospital are in crisis mode and there are fewer of them. The confluence of federal health care finance woes with the state’s issues make Medicaid a polarizing issue.
Now, as then, the condition of Mississippi’s highways and bridges are a deep concern. But today’s concerns are perhaps exacerbated by technological changes that have negatively impacted Mississippi’s antiquated method of road fund finance.
Taxes – the usual tug of war between the haves and the have-nots – is a constant political issue. Taxes are the most partisan of issues from a national perspective and with the advent of social media, the 24-hour news cycle and other technologies, it is impossible for Democrats to make the pithy claims that Finch and other Democrats once made when their party’s platforms were out-of-step with Mississippi voters: “I’m a Mississippi Democrat.”
Of course, for Republicans courting millennial voters, that’s a sword that cuts both ways. Distinguishing “mainstream” Republicans from those with Tea Party allegiances or merely Trump backers is also a hard political tightrope to walk.
What has changed in Mississippi since Carmichael-Finch in 1975 is that it is now the case that the GOP is the entrenched, monolithic party that exerts enormous courthouse-to-statehouse control. Where Republican Carmichael beat the drum for the benefits of a more vibrant two-party system in the state in 1975, look for Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Jim Hood to play that card in 2019 as the only current statewide-elected Democrat.
There will be other issues that will surface in the state’s 2019 elections. Special interests will certainly see to that. But at the end of the day, the elections will come down to voters choosing candidates who can most effectively connect with them about education, public healthcare, roads and taxes.
There’s one caveat to that and it comes down to the two names Mississippi voters are likely to hear most in the 2019 elections – President Donald Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Sprinkle in some Mitch McConnell and some Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as well.
Who can be linked to whom by attack ads? When the opposition research accusations start to fly, what sticks? The primaries are less than four months away.