Constitution change could strengthen independents

Published 6:45 pm Friday, February 19, 2021

When former Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice Bill Waller Jr. was weighing a run for governor in 2019, research was done on whether he could conduct a viable campaign as an independent.

Waller, of course, opted to run as a Republican and later lost a runoff election in the primary to then-Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who had a massive campaign war chest and was viewed as the heavy favorite.

At the time, Waller and others feared that an independent — even a former Supreme Court justice — would not be taken seriously in Mississippi, where there is not much history of viable third-party candidates. And perhaps more importantly, Waller would face a near impossible political task because of provisions in the Mississippi Constitution. Those provisions dictated that if no candidate in a statewide election garnered both a majority of the popular vote and a majority vote in the state’s 122 House districts, the House of Representatives would vote to decide the winner.

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The thought was that even if Waller could be in the top two in an election that was thrown to the House, there was no way he could prevail, especially if the other candidate was the Republican Reeves. No doubt, as has been well documented, Reeves is far from popular with House members thanks in part to his time as lieutenant governor, where he presided over the Senate and was often at odds with House leaders. Still, members of the three-fifths Republican majority in the House would have faced tremendous pressure from party leadership to vote for their fellow Republican Reeves.

But things are different now. Elections can no longer go to the House after 75% of Mississippians voted in November to remove those provisions from the state Constitution. Now, if no candidate obtains a majority of the vote, there is a runoff for voters to decide between the top two vote-getters.

Would Waller have opted to run as an independent if that provision already had been removed before the 2019 election? Probably not. But it is interesting to look ahead to whether an independent could one day be a viable candidate in the current political environment.

There is growing talk from some national Republicans, who are not enamored with the leadership of former President Donald Trump or the prominent party leaders who support him, of forming a third party. A Gallup poll released last week found that a record 62% of Americans support forming a third party because the two major parties “do such a poor job representing the American people.”

Would Reeves have won in 2019 had Waller run as an independent? Probably. But it is not such a stretch to see a scenario where the outcome would have been in question in a three-way November general election with Republican Reeves, independent Waller and Democrat Jim Hood on the ballot.

It is safe to assume no candidate would have garnered a majority. Who would have won the runoff? We will never know for sure.

Perhaps someone in the future — a businessperson with no background in politics — could wage a successful third-party campaign.

After all, that there is at least one example of a third-party candidate impacting a Mississippi election. The constitutional provisions throwing statewide elections to the House applied only to the eight state offices — not the U.S. Senate posts. In 1978, Thad Cochran became the first Republican elected to statewide office in Mississippi since the 1800s when he won a U.S. Senate seat. Many believe Cochran, who served until 2018, won that historic election because Charles Evers, brother of Civil Rights icon Medgar Evers, ran as an independent and is generally believed to have siphoned the majority of his votes from Democrat Maurice Danton. Cochran won that election with 45% of the vote.

Perhaps somewhere down the line, removing that provision does not help a Republican or a Democrat, but an independent.

Bobby Harrison is a reporter for Mississippi Today, a nonprofit news organization that covers state government, public policy, politics and culture.