The Mississippi House of Representatives yesterday gave final approval to the election of Ronnie Musgrove as governor, further reviving the Democratic Party in the Deep South.
Musgrove, the state's lieutenant governor, needed the approval of the Legislature to take office because he defeated Republican Mike Parker with only a plurality of the vote, 49.62 percent to 48.52 percent, with the remainder going to two minor candidates. The state constitution forces a legislative vote if no one wins a majority.
Musgrove, an anti-abortion, pro-education moderate, will take office next week. After the 86-36 vote yesterday, Mississippi joins Alabama and South Carolina as states that have replaced Republican governors with Democrats. Georgia, in its most recent election, replaced a Democrat with a Democrat.
The Musgrove election brings to a close the eight years in which Kirk Fordice, a colorful and outspoken conservative, dominated state politics as the state's first elected Republican since Reconstruction.
Although immensely popular, Fordice allowed relations with the Legislature to degenerate into constant hostility, and he left little in the way of a legislative or political legacy. Fordice's marital problems and his revival of a 40-year-old romance with his high school sweetheart became his central contributions to the lore of Mississippi.
While Democrats did well last November in Mississippi, winning all statewide posts on the ballot except one and picking up seats in the Legislature, Musgrove's razor-thin victory in November does not ensure a revival of Democratic rule.
"What it says is that a Democrat can win if he is perceived as a moderate, and not a liberal or elitist," one strategist said, noting that Parker, a former congressman, did not run an effective race.
Republican pollster Whit Ayres said that in the South, the GOP continues to have the strong advantage in presidential elections and to a lesser degree in Senate elections, but the Democrats remain dominant in local and county contests--leaving races for governor highly competitive. Democratic vulnerability in presidential and Senate contests results from the rule that "anytime you can draw comparisons between national Democrats and national Republicans, it's an advantage for the Republicans," Ayres said.
Analysis of the November vote showed that Musgrove made major improvements over prior unsuccessful Democratic candidates in the northwest corner of the state, which is made up of middle-class, white suburbs of Memphis, and in the northeast, a predominantly white area where Democratic loyalties were deeply ingrained during the New Deal.
Democratic consultant Bill Carrick, who advised the Musgrove campaign, said he found that most dramatic shifts toward Musgrove were among white women, whose priority issue is education.
Carrick was sharply critical of the Parker campaign, noting that the Republican "never did anything to engage Musgrove."
In contrast, he said, the Musgrove campaign ran ads contending that Parker's congressional voting record showed he was anti-Social Security and Medicare and willing to raise taxes.