The Daily Kos Elections Morning Digest is compiled by David Nir, Jeff Singer, Stephen Wolf, and Carolyn Fiddler, with additional contributions from David Jarman, Steve Singiser, Daniel Donner, James Lambert, David Beard, and Arjun Jaikumar.
● MS-Gov: As we've written before, Mississippi's 1890 state constitution contains a Jim Crow-era provision that requires gubernatorial candidates to win both a majority of the statewide vote and a majority of the 122 districts that make up the state House; if someone fails to hit both of these benchmarks, the state House picks the new governor from the top two finishers. Mississippi Today's Bobby Harrison has now taken a deeper look at how this law has played out recently, noting that it in fact applies to all seven of the state's cabinet offices, not just the governorship.
It turns out that Mississippi hosted three straight elections in the 1990s in which a statewide candidate failed to capture dual majorities. However, in each case, the ultimate winner was the person who won the most votes.
The first time this provision was invoked was in the 1991 election for lieutenant governor, where Republican Eddie Briggs won 49.5 percent of the vote—just shy of a majority—while Democratic incumbent Brad Dye took just under 42 percent (a third candidate finished with 9 percent). While Dye's fellow Democrats controlled the state House (the GOP would only take charge after the 2011 elections, for the first time since Reconstruction), he sent legislators a letter conceding the contest to Briggs.
Four years later, Briggs lost re-election to Democrat Ronnie Musgrove 53-47. But while Musgrove won a majority of the vote, he didn't win a majority of state House seats. However, Briggs, like Dye before him, conceded the race, handing victory to Musgrove.
Musgrove then ran for governor in 1999, narrowly outpacing Republican Mike Parker by a slim 49.6-48.5 spread. In a remarkable twist, each candidate won exactly half of the state's 122 House districts. But unlike Dye and Biggs, Parker did not concede defeat, and the matter went before the state House. The chamber, which was still firmly in Democratic hands at the time, elected Musgrove, with legislators arguing it was only fair to select the candidate who had won the most votes.
Unfortunately, Magnolia State Democrats didn't take advantage of this opportunity to change the law when they still could. During the era of Republican control that began in 2012, the GOP has shown no interest in excising this anti-democratic section of the state constitution. Over the years, Democratic legislators have proposed bills that would ensure whichever candidate wins the most votes wins office, but these efforts have gone nowhere. Harrison writes that Democratic state Sen. David Blount has proposed similar legislation this year, but it's also likely to die without action.
State Democrats may hold out hope that, if one of their statewide candidates earns more votes than the Republican but fails to win either a majority or at least 62 House districts, the GOP-led state House would just bow to the popular will and pick the Democrat. However, there's very good reason to doubt the Mississippi Republican Party would pass on the opportunity to select one of their own, regardless of what voters want.
In a 2015 race for the state House, final election returns showed Democratic state Rep. Bo Eaton and Republican rival Mark Tullos each taking 4,589 votes. State law requires that, in the event of a tie, the winner is chosen in a game of chance. Eaton went on to draw the long straw, which should have ended the matter right then and there.
However, state House rules permitted Tullos to challenge the outcome, even without any basis. Tullos made some claims for appearances' sake, and they were entirely bogus: He said five affidavit votes shouldn't count because voters had moved (yet still lived in the district) but failed to notify election officials. Those same officials didn't agree that this was a problem, though, since they'd certified the election results, as did the secretary of state.
But House Republicans didn't care, because adding Tullos to their caucus would have given them the three-fifths supermajority they needed to rewrite tax laws without a single Democratic vote. They blithely voted to seat Tullos, even though he'd lost the tiebreaker. Eaton proposed that a new election be held, but his idea was met with silence. Several voters did file a lawsuit, but in 2018―a full two years after Tullos was seated―a federal appeals court rejected it, saying it lacked jurisdiction to hear the matter.
That incident was a prime example of how Mississippi Republicans, like their brethren nationwide, will find a way to use whatever power they already have to keep or acquire more, public perception be damned. And the stakes in the Eaton-Tullos race were a whole lot lower than a gubernatorial contest would be. If a Democrat did win the most votes in a race for governor but it was still up to the state House to pick a winning candidate, it's unlikely the GOP would just do the right thing when they could keep the state's top job in their column.
And there's a decent chance this scenario could come to pass this very year. Team Blue's likely nominee is Attorney General Jim Hood, who for the last 11 years has been the only Democrat to hold statewide office. But while Hood is almost certainly the strongest candidate Democrats could field, the GOP-drawn state House map makes it very difficult for a Democrat to win a majority of state House districts unless they're already winning a popular vote landslide. The 1890 law was explicitly designed to undermine the power of black voters—the same voters who now make up much of the Democratic base in Mississippi—and it might do just that once again.
Some observers have argued that this law, while still on the books, would either go unenforced or simply be unenforceable. However, that's far from guaranteed, especially since it's come into play as recently as 1999 in the Musgrove-Parker race. Since Mississippi Republicans aren't in any hurry to repeal this racist relic of the Jim Crow era, the only way for voting rights advocates to defang it is to challenge it in court now—before it's too late.
● VA-Gov: The unfolding situation in Virginia continues to change rapidly. Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam still has yet to give in to near-universal calls for his resignation, and if anything, he may be digging in.
The New York Times’ Jonathan Martin reported Tuesday that Northam was planning to hire a private investigator to look into his racist yearbook photo. On Friday, when the photograph from his 1984 medical school yearbook page became public, showing a pair of men—one dressed in a KKK robe and hood and another wearing blackface—the governor initially apologized “for the decision I made to appear as I did in this photo.” However, Northam reversed himself the next day, denying that either figure was him even as he confessed that he had worn blackface at a dance contest, also in 1984, where he sought to impersonate Michael Jackson.
Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, a fellow Democrat, would become governor if Northam were to resign, but he’s been dealing with a different problem. On Tuesday, NBC reported that the woman who accused Fairfax of sexually assaulting her in 2004 had come forward to identify herself as Vanessa Tyson, a political science professor at Scripps College in California. NBC says that Tyson has hired the same law firm that represented Christine Blasey Ford when she accused now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh of attempted rape. Tyson has not spoken publicly, but NBC says a “source close to Tyson's legal team” gave the news network permission to identify her by name.
Back in 2017, Tyson told the Washington Post that Fairfax had sexually assaulted her at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, an encounter Fairfax described as consensual. The paper said Monday it chose not to run a story on the topic after Tyson approached it following Fairfax's win in 2017 because it could not corroborate her account, nor could it find "similar complaints of sexual misconduct" against Fairfax.
When the story first broke, Fairfax—without evidence—accused Northam of having circulated the allegations as a means of thwarting Fairfax's ascent to the governorship, accusations that a Northam spokesperson denied. On Monday night, Fairfax backtracked, saying he had “no indication” that the governor’s team was behind this story.
But in the very same discussion with reporters, Fairfax then hinted that Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, a potential 2021 Democratic candidate for governor, was responsible, though just like with Northam, Fairfax provided no evidence. Stoney, one of the most prominent black politicians in Virginia, hotly rejected the charge, declaring, “The insinuation is 100 percent not true, and frankly it’s offensive.”
While Virginia Democrats were quick to demand that Northam resign, they haven’t yet called for Fairfax’s departure. On Tuesday, the state House and Senate Democratic caucuses issued a statement saying that “[t]he facts are still being determined,” while the state Democratic Party said, “All allegations of sexual assault deserve to be taken with profound gravity. We will continue to evaluate the situation regarding Lt. Gov. Fairfax.” If both Northam and Fairfax were to resign, Democratic Attorney General Mark Herring would assume the governorship.
● UT-Gov: On behalf of the Salt Lake Tribune, the University of Utah takes another look at the 2020 GOP primary to succeed Gov. Gary Herbert, who says he's probably not running again:
- Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox: 28
- Former Rep. Jason Chaffetz: 27
- Rep. Rob Bishop: 10
- Former state House Speaker Greg Hughes: 4
- Attorney General Sean Reyes: 4
- Former Utah Jazz CEO Greg Miller: 2
- Public policy institute head Natalie Gochnour: 1
None of these candidates have declared yet. Cox, whom Herbert is raising money for, said last month that he was "90 percent" in, but won't make a final decision until his son returns from Africa this summer and can weigh in on Cox's plans along with the rest of the family. Chaffetz, who currently works as a Fox News talking head, maintains that he's a "definite maybe" on entering this race, but likely won't be making up his mind until the fall.
This is the first time we've heard Gochnour, who leads the University of Utah's Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, mentioned as a candidate. It may also be the last time, since Gochnour doesn't sound very interested in running. She told the Tribune she has "no plans to be on the ballot in 2020" and that she's "absolutely committed to the public policy institute I lead."
● WV-Gov: Former state Delegate Mike Folk announced on Tuesday that he would challenge Gov. Jim Justice in the GOP primary.
Folk argued that Justice, who won this post as a Democrat in 2016 and switched parties the following year, was elected by Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin's "machine" and that "[m]any of the executive branch bureaucrats are carryovers from the time when Joe Manchin was governor." (Folk didn't mention that Manchin is considering challenging Justice this cycle.) Folk also declared that Justice, whom he labeled "Traitor Jim," "proposed the largest tax increase" in state history, and it was only Folk and his colleagues in the legislature that stopped most of them from becoming law.
It's unclear how vulnerable Justice is in a primary. While the governor had a horrible relationship with the GOP legislature while he was a Democrat (perhaps best epitomized in the manure veto incident), there's been a lot less acrimony since he joined the Republican Party. Perhaps most importantly, Donald Trump has gushed over the governor, who switched parties at a Trump rally, over the last year, declaring in August that Justice is "the largest, most beautiful man." If the White House is in Justice's corner, he could be very tough to beat in a primary.
It also remains to be seen how strong a candidate Folk is. Folk, a three-term state House member from the state's Eastern Panhandle, gave up his seat last year to challenge longtime Democratic state Sen. John Unger. The incumbent ended up beating Folk 52-48 in a seat that Trump had carried 57-38 two years before.
● IL-14: GOP state Rep. Allen Skillicorn put out a statement addressing rumors that he's eyeing a bid against freshman Democratic Rep. Lauren Underwood, and he's very much not ruling anything out. Skillicorn declared he would "fight for Illinoisans in the state capitol, main street, on farms and even Washington, D.C.," and that he was listening to families in the seven counties that make up the 14th Congressional District. This seat, which is located in the western Chicago area, backed Trump 49-45.
Skillicorn, who has served in the legislature since the 2016 elections, notably supported hard-right fellow state Rep. Jeanne Ives over Gov. Bruce Rauner in last year's GOP primary, predicting that if Rauner was renominated, "Illinois Republicans will be decimated come November 2018." Rauner narrowly beat Ives, but rather than back the governor's ultimately unsuccessful general election bid, Skillicorn endorsed Libertarian Kash Jackson in the fall. It's unclear how party leaders feel about Skillicorn's act of apostasy.
● Dallas, TX Mayor: The very crowded May nonpartisan primary got another candidate on Friday when Steve Smith, whom the Dallas News describes as "the founder and CEO of a $3.5 billion asset management firm and an active Dallas environmentalist," entered the contest.
Smith, whom the paper also says is a "relative unknown in political circles," declared he was running to invigorate nature areas around the Trinity River. Smith has proposed creating a 10,000-foot acre Trinity Nature Park, which would "re-wild" several areas and include a series of trails and other elements of what he calls "nature-based tourism." Dallas' filing deadline is Feb. 15, so the candidate field will be set soon.
● Tampa, FL Mayor: St. Pete Polls is out with the first poll we've seen of the crowded March 5 nonpartisan primary, and they give former Tampa police chief Jane Castor a wide 45-13 lead over wealthy businessman David Straz, with former Hillsborough County Judge Dick Greco Jr. at 9.
Castor would need to win a majority of the vote to avoid an April runoff, and this poll indicates that's a real possibility. Straz began airing ads all the way back in August and he's outspent Castor $1.4 million to $138,000 so far. However, if this survey is on-target, that early investment isn't helping him as much as he'd like. St. Pete Polls often polls on behalf of the news site Florida Politics, but they did not identify a client for this survey.
Of course, this is just one poll, and there's still a month left to go before the primary. However, if any of the other candidates have better numbers, they're not releasing them yet. Straz's team insisted that "[o]ur polls are different," but they didn't share them. Former Hillsborough County Commissioner Ed Turanchik, who took 7 percent in the St. Pete Polls survey, dismissed it as "junk" and also said his unreleased internal polls showed him in better shape.