Charles Dunagin: A moderate governor for 2020 could be in order

By CHARLES DUNAGIN GUEST COLUMNIST,

As centrist politics diminishes across the nation, could Mississippi find itself with a moderate in the governor’s office next year?

Maybe, although it’s unlikely they’ll call themselves that. No candidate in the Republican primary would admit to being  anything but a  conservative.

Attorney General Jim Hood, presumed to be the leading candidate in the other party’s primary, probably prefers “conservative Democrat,”  trying to distance himself from the liberal national Democrats.

State Rep. David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis, predicted in Oxford the other night that Mississippi will have a “centrist Democrat governor” in 2020.

Baria could be expected to predict Hood will win the governor’s race. The Gulf Coast legislator who previously  served in the Senate  is currently the minority leader in the House and also was the Democratic nominee for U.S. senator last year, losing to the incumbent Republican, Roger Wicker. Baria isn’t running for re-election or any other office this year, but he doesn’t rule out another venture in politics.

He was joined in what was billed as a “conversation” at the Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics at the Ole Miss Journalism School by Republican political consultant and author Stuart Stevens, Charles Overby, the chairman of the center, and Overby Fellow Curtis Wilkie who, as a youth, lived in Summit. As journalists, both Overby and Wilkie formerly covered national as well as Mississippi politics.

The subject was on the outlook for “centrist politics” which all the panelists agreed has diminished as a force in deciding elections.

As partisan primaries push Republicans farther to the right and Democrats to the left, the center doesn’t have the influence it once did, and Stevens is not optimistic about its resurgence.

Stevens, a Mississippi native who has been a strategist and consultant in numerous Republican campaigns, also sounded pessimistic about the long term outlook of the Republican party, contending it is becoming a “white person’s party” at a time when non-white voting rolls are increasing.

Not a fan of President Trump, he said the GOP is becoming more like Trump than it wants to admit.

Back to the governor’s race — which wasn’t part of the agenda — but which I raised in a question when the audience was invited to participate.

Baria was asked whether he thought retired Mississippi Supreme Court Justice William Waller Jr. could be described as a moderate since he has advocated some form of Medicaid expansion, significant school teacher raises and more money on infrastructure which the Republican hierarchy in the Mississippi Legislature has eschewed.

Baria said he has great respect for Waller and indicated he could be described as a “moderate Republican.”

But he doubts Waller will win the Republican primary, predicting that Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, with his name identification and $7 million campaign war chest will win the nomination. He’ll spend what he needs to in the primary and save the rest for the general election, Baria speculated.

This didn’t come up at the Overby Center discussion, but it occurred to me that the problems Waller and another GOP candidate in the race, Rep. Robert Foster, face was illustrated a day earlier at Mississippi State University.

The MSU Republicans and Department of Political Science sponsored a debate among the Republican gubernatorial candidates and worked with a Jackson television station to broadcast it.

Reeves declined to join the debate which isn’t unusual for presumed front- runners to do — thus diminishing its impact.

And then the powers that be at Mississippi State scrapped the television plans because, according to a spokesman, it was a late window to handle all the details and also on the same day as a significant Phi Beta Kappa induction event. The free television exposure would have helped Waller and Foster who don’t have the money that Reeves does.

I guess it’s just a coincidence that, according to a report by Mississippi Today’s Adam Ganucheau, Rhonda Keenum, wife of MSU President Mark Keenum, is on Reeves’ campaign finance committee, and Reeves’ brother, Todd, is on the Bulldog Club board of directors.  “Bully Bloc,  a powerful group of alumni and friends of the university, wrote Reeves’ campaign a $50,000 check in 2018 after giving smaller donations in previous years,” the  Mississippi Today article said.

The Bulldog support for Reeves is interesting in that Waller, unlike Tate Reeves, is a graduate of Mississippi State. But then, Reeves apparently is a more visible football fan, and, after all, Waller did go over to Ole Miss to attend law school.

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