2018 proved to be a big year in the political atmosphere of Mississippi. From major legislation proposed and passed during the regular and special sessions, to the historic election of Mississippi’s first female U.S. Senator. Here’s our recap of some of the highlights of the year.
During the last regular session before an election year, lawmakers took a stab at a few major topics; infrastructure, Medicaid, and education. After the appointment of Drew Snyder over Medicaid, his team reported a major drop in the deficit request, it was down from an estimated $50 million ask to $20 million with the hope of not even asking that much.
It was a fight to the death when it came to potentially allowing vaccination exemption for religious reasons, a bill that seemed to be working it’s favor through lawmakers only to fail in committee. It was authored by Rep. Andy Gipson and would have taken Mississippi out of the remaining three states that do not allow for the exemptions (California and West Virginia also).
Gipson was also a big player in another bill that caused quite a bit of controversy with SEC schools. HB 1083 would allow Mississippians who have enhanced concealed carry permits to ‘challenge the rules or policies of public places’ that do not allow firearms. That includes University sporting events.
Universities in Mississippi received letters from the SEC Commissioner saying that if this law is passed then SEC sporting events will not take place on their respective campuses. Ultimately the bill died after amendments were made that bill authors didn’t agree with.
Eventually lawmakers voted to approve a Medicaid budget but could not reach an agreement on how to tackle infrastructure, whether through House Bill 720 or the Lt. Governor’s proposed ‘Bridge Act’. The were also not able to pass a proposal for a new education formula. Of course you can see how your legislators ranked on the BIPEC yearly scorecard.
During the session Y’all Politics conducted a large poll on the favorability of Democratic leaders in the state. The survey suggested that the Democratic party lacks a common mindset for the party since the 2015 nomination of a sweet potato truck driver for Governor. It could be interesting how this discourse plays out during the 2019 election cycle.
A state of emergency was declared for locally owned bridges, closing over 350 by federal mandate to be repaired before reopened. That then prompted Governor Bryant to call lawmakers back for a Special Session in August to address infrastructure needs and the potential for a state lottery.
The infrastructure bill, or Mississippi Infrastructure Modernization Act (HB 1), was introduced in the House, mimicking much of the legislation proposed in HB720 from regular session. A lottery bill came from the Senate, SB2001. The MIMA bill passed with much bipartisan support and very little debate between the House and the Senate. The story was not the same for the lottery bill that went back and forth a few times in the House before being brought back up for one last vote. The bill passed 55-58.
Shortly after passage a few Democrats, including Rep. David Baria who at the time was running against Roger Wicker for his Senate seat, tried to flip their votes. Baria lied about his attempt to flip, until he got caught in the fib and confessed that he was advised it would ‘look better on his record for the campaign.’
His vote change, along with many others, were not allowed on the floor and he decided not to attempt to change again at the next chance.
You can check out our editorial recap on the Special Session below:
Not long after the wrap of Special Session, did infrastructure projects begin to commence. One of which caused quite the stir within the state. A frontage road that would connect a wealthy part of Jackson residential area with Lakeland Drive. This particular area happened to be the home of one Lt. Governor Tate Reeves. As you can imagine, breathless media speculation that Reeves received special provisions for the road to be built mounted and an investigation into the relationship between Reeves’s office and MDOT quickly ensued. The investigation was lead by Attorney General Jim Hood who is running against Reeves for Governor in 2019.
Some reports suggested that the road was built as a “pet project” of the Lt. Governor and the Oak Ridge community, however email records obtained by Y’all Politics and others showed that engineers recommended the road for safety concerns in the area. Speculation over why the MDOT staff whitewashed the engineer’s comments in their statements to some press still remains.
Not only were lawmakers busy passing policy this year, but the campaign wheels were turning with both U.S. Senate seats up for election after the retirement of Senator Thad Cochran, as well as a big race in the Third District after Congressman Gregg Harper said he would also be leaving Washington.
For most of late 2017 and early 2018, state Senator Chris McDaniel had labeled Republican US Senator Roger Wicker as his biggest enemy and had geared his entire campaign apparatus into a primary challenge of him. As the deadline drew near, speculation grew about the health of US Senator Thad Cochran. Shortly after the qualifying deadline, Senator Thad Cochran stepped down for health reasons setting off a string of events that would define the rest of the political year in Mississippi.
Being badly outgunned and way down in early polls, McDaniel withdrew from the Wicker primary to compete in the non-partisan special election to replace Cochran.
Cindy Hyde-Smith was picked by Governor Phil Bryant to replace Cochran earlier that year, while there would be no primary for the seat, opponents began piling up. Including, Senator Chris McDaniel, who withdrew his candidacy for Wicker’s seat and pushed to claim Cochran’s. Soon after Mike Espy, former U.S. Congressman in the Clinton administration, also entered the race.
With Wicker now seemingly in control of his race, attention turned to the Democratic primary to determine his opponent. Rep. David Baria, Rep. Omeria Scott, and venture capitalist Howard Sherman competed as the primary contenders. While Sherman was running against Wicker, it came to light that he and acclaimed actress wife, Shela Ward, had made campaign contributions to the Senator in years past. Scott, Baria and Sherman all headed to the primary with high hopes, however it was Wicker on the Republican ticket, and Baria who would represent the Democrats in the November 6 election after a pretty lackluster primary runoff in terms of voters.
Ending what was the primary season, a four way poll by Y’all Politics found that Hyde-Smith could beat Espy in the election, but McDaniel wouldn’t be able to pull of a victory, ultimately leaving Mississippian’s expecting a runoff after the November 6 general.
After the millions spent by all campaigns and substantial involvement by President Trump on behalf of both Senators Wicker and Hyde-Smith, November 6th finally came. Amidst a round of endorsements, President Trump announced he would be visiting the Magnolia State to personally endorse Cindy Hyde-Smith as the candidate to vote for. He came to Southaven and held massive rally where he spoke of the current political climate, state of the nation, and his endorsement of Hyde-Smith.
A nebulous Super PAC backed by California billiionaire and ProPublica Founder Herbert Sandler , began making its presence felt with total spending close to $2 million to help Espy in the cycle. Espy helped his own cause and was substantially more adept at raising money from Hollywood and New York than his fellow Democrat David Baria.
During this time controversy was brewing in Washington during the hearings to confirm Judge Brett Kavanaugh. Kavanaugh had been accused of sexual misconduct by a woman claiming the harassment occurred when she was a teenager. This split lawmakers across the country as they took sides on the issue. Wicker and Hyde-Smith stood by the conservative judge and his assertion that the claims were absolutely false.
In yet another poll, results indicated that Espy and McDaniel camps were both still ‘underwater’ and it turned out both of their chances would increase if they could keep Hyde-Smith out of a runoff. But, that isn’t what happened. The night of the election, Hyde-Smith and Espy stayed neck and neck all night, with McDaniel unable to get out of the teens in terms of vote percentage and actually receiving less support in areas he had triumphed in during the 2014 election against Cochran.
The results were confirmed for all races around 10:00 that evening. Senator Roger Wicker beat Baria by a landslide and the entire state tensed up for the oncoming runoff between Hyde-Smith and Espy.
Merely days after the general election happened, a small Louisiana independent publication released a video of Hyde-Smith making statements about attending a “public hanging.” Hyde-Smith was attempting to compliment a supporter, but the statement and video went viral and all eyes of the nation were now on Mississippi.
Hyde-Smith chose to stay tight lipped on the subject, releasing a statement to the press that asserted she meant no harm by the statement and to try and make it as such would be ridiculous. However, she wasn’t let off that easy. For the remaining three weeks of the runoff she hounded by national press as to what she meant by the comment and why she had not simply apologized for it. She eventually said a few words that seemed to be an apology during the debate with Espy hosted by Mississippi Farm Bureau in Jackson.
It also came out, but got much less media play, that Mike Espy had supported and lobbied for an Ivory Coast leader who is now being charged with war crimes. The job netted him over $750,000 as he worked for Laurent Gbagbo, currently on trial for war crimes. Espy said he never completed the contract and only took $400,000 from the job, while federal paperwork filed indicated he still took another $350,000. When asked what he did with that money and if he would donate it to a charitable cause he seemed to avoid the question.
When runoff night finally commenced it was Hyde-Smith who took the win, leading over Espy by nearly 10 points. She became the first female U.S. Senator the State of Mississippi has ever had.
You can read our editorial analysis of the runoff election below:
Looking forward to 2019:
As we move to 2019, we may not see another infrastructure or education bill on the docket, but legislation addressing human trafficking, potential expansion of broadband service and a potential teacher pay raise will surely be topics of conversation during session. Most lawmakers will be looking to the campaign trail as we face yet another massive election year.
Several big players have already announced what they are running for. Attorney General Jim Hood has announced his run for Governor, along with freshman Republican State Rep. Robert Foster. Also in that race are Democrat Valesha Williams. Williams is retired from Jackson State with a former military background and has been summarily ignored by just about every media outlet to date.
Expected to run is Lt. Governor Tate Reeves, but still no word on an official announcement. When it does happen, it could mean for an interesting match up between he and Hood.
Also announced, Treasurer Lynn Fitch is running for Attorney General. Right now she faces fellow republican and Representative Mark Baker.
The State Treasurer’s race is heating up. Madison attorney and businessman David McRae is announced for the Republican primary as is Senator Buck Clarke of Hollandale. Southern District PSC Sam Britton has also been rumored to be considering the race setting up what would likely be the most competitive primary contest of the 2019 cycle.
All in all, things are gearing up to be another interesting election year in the State of Mississippi. Though in his “lame duck” year, Governor Bryant shows no sign of slowing down or wielding influence in either the Legislator or in the 2019 political contests. With a close and still emerging relationship with President Trump, the shadow he’s set to cast in his last year of office may yet get longer in 2019.
Thanks for your support of Y’all Politics in what was a transformative year for us in 2018. We look forward to providing the best political coverage in Mississippi going into the historic 2019 statewide election year.