Republican and Democratic signs are in place for voters at Casey Elementary School during Mississippi's Primary Election Day, Tuesday, August 6, 2019. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

Rep. Jon Lancaster, elected to the state House of Representatives in 2019 as a Democrat, is the latest to switch affiliation to the Republican Party, adding to the GOP’s legislative supermajority.

Lancaster’s defection was a bit surprising in that so many legislators have switched over the past two decades that it almost appeared that there were none left to change parties. There are now at least 12 current members of the House of Representatives who were elected as Democrats but are no longer serving as Democrats.

Rep. Jon Lancaster

Lancaster’s flip also further divides legislative party lines by race. There are now just two white Democrats in the Senate and four in the House. And only four of those Democrats — Hob Bryan of Amory in the Senate and Tommy Reynolds of Water Valley, Tom Miles of Forest and Shanda Yates of Jackson in the House — are elected from majority white districts.

Lancaster, a Chickasaw County farmer, was elected to his first term in 2019 with 54% of the vote. He succeeded long-time Democrat Preston Sullivan of Okolona, who did not seek re-election. Lancaster’s District 22, which consist of Chickasaw and Pontotoc counties, was generally viewed as a district where a Democrat always had a chance of winning.

“I feel this gives my constituents a real seat at the table,” Lancaster told the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo. The switch “gives me a opportunity to better represent them.”

Lancaster’s flip gives Republicans 77 members in the 122-member House. Republicans have 36 seats in the 52-member Senate. In both chambers, the GOP holds a supermajority, meaning it needs no Democratic votes to pass any major policy.

“They (party switchers) believe it is best for their political survivor,” said Rep. Robert Johnson of Natchez, the House Democratic leader. “They believe it is best to help them to keep their seat.”

That feeling of survival could be more about what legislators believe is the best way to ensure Republican leaders draw districts for the former Democrats that give them the best chance of winning re-election. House and Senate legislative districts are slated to be redrawn during the upcoming 2022 session to match population shifts found by the 2020 U.S. Census.

Johnson said legislative Democrats — primarily Black members — have not made white Democrats uncomfortable by supporting radical political positions or by not working with the Republican leadership.

“The House Democrats have been nothing but mainstream, middle of the road,” Johnson said. “We have embraced issues that affect the working people of Mississippi.”

Johnson said the Democrats’ primary issues have been:

  • Expanding Medicaid to provide health care coverage to primarily the working poor.
  • Fully funding public education.
  • Providing equal pay for women.
  • Raising the minimum wage.

For decades most legislators were Democrats, and the splits in the chambers were based more on geography — urban versus rural and other factors — than on party affiliation.

But in the 1990s with the election of Vicksburg contractor Kirk Fordice, the state’s first Republican governor since the 1800s, the trend of legislators switching parties began — first as trickle then as a tidal wave.

One of the last strongholds for rural white Democrats was Lancaster’s home area of northeast Mississippi. For much of the 1990s and 2000s, northeast Mississippi rural, white Democrats were the dominant power structure in the Legislature, and especially the House.

For 24 years, the speaker was a rural, white Democrat: first Tim Ford and then Billy McCoy, both of whom represented portions of Prentiss County. But with Lancaster’s defection, all of those rural white Democrats, with the exception of Sen. Bryan, are gone.

Of Lancaster’s switch, Frank Bordeaux, chair of the Mississippi Republican Party, said in a statement to the Daily Journal, “Since being elected, Rep. Lancaster has voted with Republicans on several key issues, and we are glad he’s made the decision to join the GOP. We look forward to continuing growing the MSGOP and pushing back against Joe Biden’s radical agenda.”

READ MORE: Mississippi Today publishes three-part series on the dysfunction of the Mississippi Democratic Party

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Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.