In three elections for governor in the 1990s, the Democratic candidates essentially matched or garnered more in campaign contributions than their Republican opponents.
That all changed in the early 2000s. Starting with the 2003 statewide elections, the Democratic candidates have not been close in terms of matching their Republican opponents in fundraising.
In 2003, both Republican challenger Haley Barbour and Democratic incumbent Ronnie Musgrove shattered records for campaign fundraising in Mississippi. But the discrepancy between what Barbour, a well established Washington, D.C., lobbyist, raised and what the incumbent governor raised was jaw-dropping. Musgrove raised a healthy $7.7 million – more than double the previous record. But Barbour garnered $11.3 million in campaign cash for that 2003 election.
It appears when all the accounting is completed on the recently completed 2019 campaign that it will reveal that Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who won the Nov. 5 governor’s election, might have raised more than Barbour did in 2003. Reeves’ Democratic opponent – Attorney General Jim Hood – will most likely have raised less than $5.5 million or about half as much as Reeves.
For a Mississippi Democrat, $5.5 million in campaign fundraising is a respectable amount. After all, in almost every statewide and legislative election, the Democrat is outgunned significantly in terms of campaign cash.
In part, the inability of Mississippi Democrats to raise money is a symptom of the dismal state of the party. As Democrats debate how to revive the party and move forward after the shellacking they suffered this election cycle, one issue they must resolve is how to garner campaign money to fund their candidates’ campaigns.
That inability to raise money can be traced, at least in part, back to the efforts in the early 2000s to change the civil justice system to ensure more protection from lawsuits for businesses.
Those changes to the civil justice system came to the forefront during the administration of Musgrove. Under intense pressure, Musgrove agreed in 2002 to call a special session to address possible changes to the civil justice system. That special session famously lasted 83 days and, in the end, House Democrats who were primarily the obstacle to those tort changes, capitulated, resulting in a huge victory for the business community and the medical profession.
Despite those victories, Barbour ran on the need for even more changes to the civil justice system in 2003. He painted Musgrove as an obstacle to those changes.
A successful Barbour was able to push through those additional changes during a much shorter special session. The result of those two special sessions was a wide array of changes to protect businesses from lawsuits, such as capping punitive damages and damages for pain and suffering, limiting where and when lawsuits could be filed and many other changes to benefit businesses.
During the fight over the tort changes, the state’s business community and its campaign contributions began to gravitate toward the Republican Party. Trial attorneys, perhaps possessing less disposable income than they did before the tort changes, became less involved in making donations to political campaigns. Some still give, but not nearly at the level they once did.
A lot of issues play a part in the weak state of Mississippi Democrats. Chief among those is the fact that a large majority of white Mississippians for various reasons are more closely aligned with the national Republicans.
The “tort reform” efforts and resulting allegiance of the business community and its campaign giving to Republicans deepen the problem for state Democrats.
A bright spot for Democrats could be seen in the fact that one of the few Democrats to out-raise his Republican opponent in recent elections was Mike Espy against Cindy Hyde-Smith in the 2018 special Senate election to replace long-time U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran. Surprisingly Espy raised about $7.5 million compared to $5.5 million for the victorious Hyde-Smith.
Espy, of course, is challenging Hyde-Smith again in 2020 in the regular election for a full six-year term. One of the reasons that Espy thinks he has a chance is the belief he can match those fundraising efforts and garner that money earlier in the campaign to more strategically expend it.
Espy, the first African-American elected to the U.S. House from the state since the 1800s, says those funds came in late during the 2018 campaign, after Hyde-Smith’s comment about being willing to attend a public hanging caused a national backlash, and that he did not have time to strategically use those funds.
He believes 2020 will be different.
“I have 150,000 donors now. I know who they are. They gave an average of $38 each. We are going to reach out to each one of them,” Espy said.
That could be a start for Democrats.
This column was produced by Mississippi Today, a nonprofit news organization that covers state government, public policy, politics and culture.
BOBBY HARRISON is Mississippi Today’s senior Capitol reporter.