Winning the Republican primary from the state legislature has proven difficult

By Aaron Rice
August 8, 2019

State Sen. Michael Watson accomplished something on Tuesday that many members of the legislature try, but seldom accomplish: win the Republican nomination for a statewide office.

Watson defeated Public Service Commissioner Sam Britton, who represents about one-third of the state in that regulatory position, by a 54-46 margin. He now faces former Hattiesburg mayor and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Johnny DuPree in the general election, where he is the odds-on favorite. 

While Watson was successful, three other members of the legislature were hoping to ascend to statewide office. State Sen. Buck Clarke, the Chairman of the Appropriations Committee for the past eight years, was running for treasurer. State Rep. Mark Baker ran for attorney general and State Rep. Robert Foster ran for governor. 

Some, like Foster, were underdogs from beginning. But still, they all lost. The story wasn’t much different in years prior.

In 2011, three members of the legislature were hoping to make the jump. State Sen. Billy Hewes was challenging then-Treasurer Tate Reeves for the open lieutenant governor’s office, State Sen. Lee Yancey was running for treasurer, and State Rep. Dannie Reed was running for agriculture commissioner. Each of these candidates, some more serious than others, lost.

But a state legislator did win that year. Then-State Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith was elected agriculture commissioner.

And then back in 2007, as the Republican Party was officially solidifying their statewide dominance, two members of the legislature were successful in a Republican primary. Then-State Sen. Mike Chaney won the Republican primary for insurance commissioner, though he had little opposition. And then-State Sen. Stacey Pickering won the Republican nomination for state auditor, though he had no opposition on the GOP side.

But that same year, State Sen. Charlie Ross was defeated by then-Auditor Phil Bryant for the open lieutenant governor’s office. And State Rep. Mike Lott ran unsuccessfully for secretary of state. 

Even in 2003, at a time when Republicans held two statewide offices (thanks to Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck switching parties before qualifying), legislators still had trouble. This was Tate Reeves’ first entrance into politics, and before he could become treasurer, he defeated, among others, State Rep. Andrew Ketchings in the primary.  

Part of the problem today is that the Republican bench of statewide officials has more-or-less rewarded “moving up” offices. And any statewide official certainly has a name, and likely, money, advantage over a legislator. But we’ve also seen candidates do better with no political background – such as David McRae in the treasurer’s office this year. 

A lot of members of the legislature have wanted to become statewide officials. Few have been successful. But as Watson showed, it's not impossible.

Since the story was originally published, updates have been made to include Cindy Hyde-Smith and Stacey Pickering.


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