Analysis: Republicans in strong position to hold, maybe increase, legislative majorities

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Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America

State representatives prepare for the 2019 legislative session in Jackson Wednesday, January 9, 2019.

Republicans are in a strong position to at least maintain their majorities in the Mississippi Legislature – based on the outcome of Friday’s deadline to qualify to run for county, regional and state offices.

And, if everything goes their way in the November general election, Republicans could even increase on the three-fifths majorities they currently hold in the House and Senate.

In the 52 member Senate, there are 24 seats where Democrats are not running candidates. By contrast, there are 14 seats where Republicans are not running candidates.

In the 122 member House, there are 42 seats where the Republicans have no candidate against the Democrat and 54 seats where the Democrats are not putting up a candidate against the majority party.

The final day of qualifying brought some bad news for Democrats. Only hours before the qualifying deadline, Rep. Nick Bain of Corinth switched to the Republican Party. And two Democrats – Steve Holland of Plantersville and Angela Cockerham of Magnolia – announced they were seeking re-election as independents.

Both opted to run as independents to avoid tough party primaries. In general terms, Holland has been a consistent vote for Democrats on most issues and most likely would remain so as an independent. Cockerham has been a less dependable vote, siding with the Republican leadership on many issues. In addition, Democratic leader David Baria of Bay St. Louis announced he would not seek re-election. Speaker Philip Gunn will be challenged by Madison County attorney Vicki Slater. She ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2015, losing in the Democratic primary.

With the decision of Cockerham, Holland and Bain, the current makeup of the House is 75 Republicans, 41 Democrats, two independents and four vacancies.

Rogelio V. Solis, Associated Press

Rep. Angela Cockerham, D-Magnolia, confers with Rep. John Moore, R-Brandon, during a second day of state agency budget hearings with the Joint Legislative Budget Committee, Tuesday, Sept. 22, 201, in Jackson.

Until Cockerham and Holland became independent last week, there had not been an independent in the Mississippi Legislature since the 2000-04 term.

Democrats have entered candidates in 68 of the 122 House districts. To capture a majority, only five of those candidates can lose. The Republicans have candidates in 80 House districts.

In the Senate, the task becomes even more daunting for Democrats when considering the fact that they fielded candidates in 28 of the 52 seats. In other words, if more than one of their candidates lose, they cannot capture a majority. The Republicans fielded 38 Senate candidates.

“I would like to have found more people to run for the House and Senate, but it is difficult to get folks to run for those positions,” said Bobby Moak, chair of the state Democratic Party.

He said the vast majority of all elected posts in the state, including those on the local level, will still be Democratic after the November elections.

But that will not be true for legislative and statewide posts. The Democrats did not enter a candidate against Republican Auditor Shad White who was appointed to the post this past year by Gov. Phil Bryant.

“We sent out more than 400,000 texts trying to recruit candidates for all positions,” said Moak.

It is not clear if the decision of Attorney General Jim Hood’s office saying that state law does not prohibit public employee retirees, such as educators and state workers, from drawing their pension while serving in the Legislature had an impact on recruiting candidates.

The Public Employees Retirement System Board of Trustees had a special meeting in February where it voted to change its regulations by Jan. 1 to adhere to the Hood opinion as long as the change did not negatively impact the federal tax-exempt status of the system. Some retired educators appear to have opted not to run because the PERS Board left some uncertainty about whether the regulation will be changed.

Nancy Loome, executive director of the pro-public education Parents Campaign, had called the attorney general’s opinion “a game changer” saying it could lead to more public education supporters serving in the Legislature.

“I expect the number of retirees running to increase in the years to come,” said Loome. “I am very pleased.”

There were some retirees who qualified to run this year.

For instance, in Lee County, Cathy Grace, the co director of the graduate center for the study of early learning at the University of Mississippi and a long-time educator, is retiring to run against Republican Rep. Shane Aguirre of Tupelo. And in Senate District 5, retired Prentiss County Tax Assessor Steve Eaton is running as a Democrat to replace outgoing Sen. J.P. Wilemon, D-Belmont.