JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — The chairman of the Mississippi Democratic Party says he has one big goal for the 2015 state elections: Regaining control of the Legislature, thereby limiting Republican Philip Gunn to a single term as speaker of the House.
"That's what I pray for every night," Rickey Cole told The Associated Press this past week in a phone interview from Phoenix, where he was attending a meeting of the Democratic National Committee.
Two years before statewide elections, Cole and his Republican counterpart, Joe Nosef, are setting strategies for their parties.
Nosef sat down with reporters recently before leaving for the Republican National Committee meeting in Boston. He said the GOP in 2015 intends to maintain majorities in the Mississippi House and Senate and to try to unseat the lone Democrat remaining in statewide office, Attorney General Jim Hood.
"I think we've got a good bench of folks that can be a good candidate. We're absolutely going to go after that seat," Nosef said of the attorney general's race. "I'm never saying that's going to be easy. If it would've been easy to beat Jim Hood, we would've beat him by now. But we're certainly going to try."
Hood recently moved his family back to north Mississippi from a Jackson suburb where they've lived since he was elected nearly a decade ago. He'll split his work time between an office in his small hometown of Houston and the attorney general's headquarters in downtown Jackson. Hood says he intends to seek a fourth term in 2015.
And Nosef is right: Hood has a strong political base, even in a state that has become increasingly more difficult for Democrats.
Mississippi has voted Republican in every presidential election since Ronald Reagan's first win in 1980. Democrats controlled every statewide office and both chambers of the Legislature for generations. But in 1991, blunt-spoken engineering executive Kirk Fordice dented the Dems' dominance by unseating Ray Mabus, becoming the state's first Republican governor since Reconstruction. He served the maximum two terms before being succeeded by the lieutenant governor from his second term, Democrat Ronnie Musgrove.
Haley Barbour, a former Republican National Committee chairman, unseated Musgrove as governor in 2003 and cruised to a second term in 2007. Now, the lieutenant governor from Barbour's second term, Bryant, is governor.
Barbour left a legacy: He and his people made the state Republican Party more effective in organization and fundraising. That, in turn, helped the GOP gain control of the state House of Representatives in the 2011 election.
"I ... certainly am not under the impression the gains we made as a party are gains that are going to stay there without a lot of hard work," Nosef said. "I'm assuming that the Democrats are going to field candidates for these offices."
The national Democratic Party has invested little in Mississippi in recent years, but Cole said it hasn't written off the state. He said party leaders are talking about organizing in every precinct in the U.S.
Cole said there's a good reason Democrats want to regain control of the 122-member state House and possibly the 52-member state Senate: "In Mississippi, the Legislature is the seat of power."
And he is taking a long view. After the 2020 Census, the dominant party in the Legislature will control the process of updating all the districts for the state House and Senate and for the Mississippi's seats in the U.S. House.
"As Democrats, we need to think like tree farmers," Cole said. "We need to plant for the next generation and not just the next election."