Incumbent Republican Gov. Haley Barbour did not have to debate Democratic challenger John Arthur Eaves in 2007, but he did.
Eaves ran a gritty campaign, but the truth is that Barbour could have won without stepping foot out of the Governor’s Mansion or perhaps more accurately away for his home on Wolf Lake in Yazoo County to campaign.
Still, Barbour continued a tradition in Mississippi of gubernatorial debates. He and Eaves participated in multiple debates that year, and not surprisingly, Eaves, a trial attorney, held his own against Barbour, a seasoned politician and debater.
It will be interesting this year to see how many debates occur and who is allowed to participate.
Sure, the August primary elections still are more than four months away, but as Nathan Shrader, a Millsaps College political science instructor, said, “it is never too early to talk about debates.”
Shrader said the early discussion of debates is especially important since Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, a front-runner, refused to participate in a debate earlier this month among Republican candidates at Mississippi State University.
Granted, Reeves, the presiding officer of the Senate, might have wanted a little time to wind down from the rigors of the 2019 legislative session that concluded just before the Mississippi State debate. And there will be opportunities to participate in other debates in advance of what could be a competitive Republican Party primary.
But considering what occurred in last year’s historic special senate election to replace Thad Cochran, who stepped down for health reasons, perhaps it is wise to not take anything – regarding debates – for granted.
Cindy Hyde-Smith, who was appointed by Gov. Phil Bryant to replace Cochran in the interim, refused to debate leading up to the first election in 2018. After no candidate garnered a majority vote, forcing a runoff, she did agree to debate Democrat Mike Espy before the second election.
But Hyde-Smith insisted the Mississippi Farm Bureau, perceived as a political ally, host the televised debate. No audience was allowed on the closed set and there was an insistence by her campaign that the candidates be allowed to bring literally stacks of backup material to the podium for the debate.
Shrader said in a state where one party is dominant – such as the Republican Party in Mississippi – debates are needed “to let people know they have choices.”
He said all, Republicans, Democrats and independents, should support debates as important to the democratic process.
“Debates provide accountability for the voters and for the candidates,” he said, and to do an adequate job multiple debates are needed.
Actually, Mississippi gubernatorial candidates have stepped up for debates in the past. In 2015, the incumbent Bryant did not debate unknown Democratic nominee Robert Gray, who was a surprise winner of the primary.
Other than that, there has been a long history of gubernatorial debates in Mississippi.
This year, if Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood maneuvers a crowded primary field as expected and wins the nomination, it is anticipated that the governor’s race will be the most competitive the state has had since 2003.
Shrader said it would be unusual not to have multiple debates this year in Mississippi.
Such debates were held in recent years in most neighboring states. In Louisiana, which like Mississippi, will hold a governor’s election this year, incumbent Gov. John Bel Edwards, a rare commodity as a Democrat in a Southern state, is expected to debate.
In 2016 in Alabama the Republican incumbent chose not to participate in a debate, but that was the exception rather than the rule for surrounding states.
Of course, the most memorable debate in recent Mississippi history occurred in 1995 at the Neshoba County Fair when Democratic challenger Dick Molpus and incumbent Republican Kirk Fordice squared off before a rowdy crowd under the tin-roofed Founders Square pavilion.
That debate, which concluded under darkened skies as the remnants of Hurricane Erin swept through, will go down in Mississippi political lore. Whether any minds were changed by the political spectacle is debatable. But the debate definitely got people interested in politics.
This column was produced by Mississippi Today, a nonprofit news organization that covers state government, public policy, politics and culture.
BOBBY HARRISON is a Mississippi Today’s senior Capitol reporter.