The surest bet in state politics this year may be the reelection of Haley Barbour, Mississippi's Republican governor, to a second term. But there is considerable political suspense in the state as voters head to the polls this month to decide the partisan composition of the legislature Barbour will face.
In the first term, Barbour has seen a considerable amount of his agenda passed into law, despite the fact that Democrats have controlled both chambers for most of his time in office. Conservative Democrats formed a coalition with Republicans to establish a working majority in the Senate that was largely supportive of the governor, even before a party switch in March gave the GOP a one-seat edge on paper.
But conditions have been less friendly for the governor in the state House, where Speaker Billy McCoy has challenged him on issues including tobacco taxes, tort reform and spending for education and housing. Republicans know they can't win enough seats to take that chamber--Democrats currently hold a 74- to 47-seat advantage--but the GOP is hoping to win just enough seats to form an alliance with a rump group of Democrats and put the more conservative Jeff Smith in the speaker's chair come January. Barbour could then expect relatively clear sailing on the legislative front for the next four years. "There's no chance of seeing liberal legislation coming out of a House where Smith is speaker," says Brian Perry, Barbour's campaign spokesman.
The fact that strategists are working across party lines to form a conservative governing coalition--coupled with the fluid nature of partisan identification in Mississippi, where legislators have become prone to switching back and forth between parties--masks an underlying truth about Barbour's influence. The former national Republican chairman isn't entirely comfortable working alongside Democrats, even if they tend to vote like Republicans in Jackson.
The two-party system is a recent development in Mississippi, and most current Republicans were Democrats at one time or another. "But with Barbour, things have become more partisan," says Mississippi State University political scientist Marty Wiseman. "Democrats are putting on the blue jerseys, Republicans red, and each can tell who each other is."
In other words, the party labels aren't just changing in Mississippi- -they're slowly becoming more meaningful. Mississippi is becoming more like the rest of America.