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Insight: How the coronavirus crisis has set off odd, angry crosscurrents across Southern politics

Budget woes, religious liberty, economic freedom crash against public health concerns

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

The collision between an untreatable and potentially deadly virus and a conservative Southern political culture that is both business-friendly and skeptical of government dicta has sent odd and even angry crosscurrents rippling across the region’s politics.

For example, in Mississippi, Governor Tate Reeves, who was slow to close down his state, had to backtrack on plans for a quick reopening when coronavirus cases rose, on the same day that legislators from both parties united to strip him of authority to spend a $1 billion pot of federal coronavirus money.

An angry Reeves accused them of “stealing.”

Editor Rich Shumate

In Nashville, Mayor John Cooper proposed a whopping 32 percent property tax increase to deal with a coronavirus-related shortfall in city revenue — and admitted that he agreed with critics who began howling about the possibility of sharply higher tax bills.

But, said Cooper, the city has no other choice.

In Kentucky, the new Republican attorney general, Daniel Cameron, joined a lawsuit seeking to invalidate a ban on interstate travel ordered by the new Democratic governor, Andy Beshear — which Beshear imposed because Tennessee’s Republican governor, Bill Lee, wasn’t imposing stay-at-home orders as strict as what Beshear issued in the Bluegrass State.

In Georgia, Governor Brian Kemp stubbornly stuck to plans to reopen his state, even though Peach State mayors and even President Donald Trump had urged him not to do so.

Coronavirus lockdowns have triggered angry protests across the South, and governors have struggled to stop pastors from holding church services — raising First Amendment arguments in the nation’s most religious section.

With a few exceptions, states in the South were among the last to close down due to the coronavirus, and they are now among the first to begin reopening, in spite of warnings from some public health officials that doing so might be dangerous.

The decisions being made by Southern governors certainly reflect the political split that coronavirus is increasingly causing nationwide, with conservatives willing to accept risk to revive the economy and liberals taking a more cautious (critics might say overcautious) approach that prioritizes public health over economic good.

Ten of the 14 Southern governors are Republicans, and the GOP controls both legislative chambers in every state except Virginia, fostering a political culture that tends to be friendly toward business interests and libertarian when it comes to questions of personal liberty.

But the push to reopen also reflects that fact that except for Louisiana, the coronavirus crisis has not been as extreme in the region as it has been in hot spots such as New York and New Jersey.

While Louisiana’s death rate per 100,000 people stands at 40, Georgia comes in at 11, and the rest of the Southern states are all less than 10 — statistics that bolster the arguments of unemployed people demanding an end to stay-at-home orders, although providing little comfort to people at higher risk for contracting COVID-19.

The push to reopen is also attractive to Southern leaders for another reason — the lockdown is blowing a hole in state and local budgets that will only get worse the longer it goes on, presenting an unpalatable choice between steep budget cuts or higher taxes.

State governments can’t deficit spend, and the income and sales tax revenues they rely on are falling sharply. The effect of the sales tax plunge will be particularly acute on three Southern states that don’t have an income tax to fall back on, Texas, Florida and Tennessee.

Florida — where Governor Ron DeSantis drew sharp criticism for being late to close — is also heavily reliant on taxes generated by tourism, which has been decimated by the crisis. Oil prices have also crashed, which affects Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma, where lawmakers have been warned that they’ll need to deal with a $3 billion hit to the state’s budget.

Southern legislators have traditionally been reluctant to raise taxes, particularly income taxes in states that have them. But if they stick to that tradition, the cuts needed to balance budgets could be extreme — prompting outrage not only from those affected by the cuts, but also from those who believe the lockdowns were an unnecessary overreaction that caused more problems than they solved.

The strongest coronavirus crosscurrents have been seen in North Carolina and Kentucky, where Republicans control the legislature and Democratic governors were quicker to close and have been more reticent to reopen than their GOP counterparts.

In North Carolina, Roy Cooper faces the unenviable prospect of running for re-election in the middle of the pandemic against Republican Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest, who has been pushing the governor to move more quickly to reopen parts of the state less affected by the virus.

Anti-lockdown protests have also grown in size and anger in North Carolina, with much of the ire directed toward Cooper.

In Kentucky, Beshear’s moves to clamp down on church services have drawn criticism from U.S. senators Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul and other Republican leaders.

The GOP holds super-majorities in both houses of the legislature and could force Beshear to back down from his coronavirus restrictions, although — perhaps fortunately for the governor — legislators don’t have the power to call themselves back into session to undo his handiwork.

In the Southern state hit hardest by coronavirus, Louisiana, Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards’s imposition of a lockdown has encountered less resistance. But even there, some Republicans in the legislature are now plotting to use an obscure state law to force him to reopen the state.

The coronavirus crisis has focused attention, both nationally and regionally, on governors; however, governors in just two Southern states, North Carolina and West Virginia, have to face the voters this fall.

Of more consequence come November will be whether the Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus crisis affects Republican candidates in races for federal offices, particularly the U.S. Senate, where 14 Southern seats are up.

That list includes both seats in Georgia, where Kemp has, for better or worse, forged his own path in dealing with the virus, and McConnell’s seat in Kentucky, where he’s already running ads touting his role in pushing coronavirus relief bills through Congress and his Democratic opponent, Amy McGrath, is deriding those bills as a sop to special interests.

Because no one knows how long the coronavirus crisis will last, or how things will turn out, its political consequences are as yet unknowable, particularly because we’ve never been through a crisis quite like this before.

Political stability and certainty, it seems, lie among coronavirus’s victims. The rest is unlikely to be peaceful.

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Louisiana Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards defeats Republican Eddie Rispone

Edwards’s victory is a blow to Republicans and President Donald Trump after earlier GOP loss in Kentucky

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

NEW ORLEANS (CFP) — Louisiana Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards has narrowly won re-election to a second term, defeating Republican Baton Rouge businessman Eddie Rispone.

The win by Edwards in Saturday’s runoff gives Democrats victories in two out of three Southern governor’s races this year, despite fervent interventions in all three races by President Donald Trump in states he carried handily in 2016.

Governor John Bel Edwards speaks to supporters in New Orleans after winning second term (WWL-TV via YouTube)

Edwards took 51 percent of the vote in the runoff to 49 percent to Rispone, one of Louisiana’s wealthiest businessmen who was making his first bid for political office.

“How sweet it is,” Edwards said in his victory speech to supporters at a New Orleans hotel. “You didn’t just vote for me. You voted for four more years of putting Louisiana first.”

Edwards is the first Democrat to win a second term as Louisiana’s chief executive since Edwin Edwards (no relation) won re-election in 1975.

In the other statewide office on the ballot Saturday, Republican incumbent Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin easily defeated Democrat Gwen Collins-Greenup by a margin of 59 percent to 41 percent.

During the first round of voting in October, Edwards took 47 percent of the vote to 27 percent for Rispone, who had tried to close the gap by unifying the Republican vote, which he had split with the third place finisher, U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham.

Trump — who carried Louisiana by 20 points in 2016 — visited the state three times during the campaign, most recently on Thursday night when he implored a rally in Bossier City that “you’ve gotta give me a big win” by electing Rispone.

Edwards responded to Trump’s involvement in the race with a classic Southern putdown in his victory speech.

“And as for the president — God bless his heart,” Edwards said. “If this campaign has taught us anything, it’s that the partisan forces in Washington, D.C. are not strong enough to break through the bonds that we share as Louisianans.”

Rispone led most of the night as the votes were counted, but Edwards caught and passed him as the vote came in from New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and Shreveport, where the governor rolled up large margins of victory — more than 90 percent in Orleans Parish.

Edwards, 53, is one of just three Democratic governors in the South, along with North Carolina’s Roy Cooper and Virginia’s Ralph Northam. But unlike Northam and Cooper, Edwards has positioned himself as a conservative Democrat who opposes legal abortion and gun control, both of which played well in Louisiana.

As a result, national Democrats, including the large crop of 2020 White House contenders, have conspicuously avoided campaigning on his behalf, although former President Barack Obama did make a robocall for the governor in the first round of the primary.

Louisiana’s governor’s race is the last contest on the 2019 election calendar and comes less than two weeks after Kentucky’s Republican governor, Matt Bevin, was defeated for re-election by Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear, despite Trump campaigning on Bevin’s behalf.

Republicans had more success in Mississippi, where Republican Lieutenant Governor Tate Reeves won the governorship over Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood.

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Louisiana voters will decide governor’s race in Saturday runoff

Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards is facing Republican Eddie Rispone in quest for second term

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com

BATON ROUGE (CFP) — Voters in Louisiana will decide who will hold the state’s governorship for the next four years in a Saturday runoff, with Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards trying to win re-election over Republican Baton Rouge businessman Eddie Rispone.

A win by Edwards in deep red Louisiana would give Democrats victories in two out of three Southern governor’s races this year, handing an embarrassing defeat to Republicans and President Donald Trump, who came to the Pelican State Thursday to campaign for Rispone for the third time.

“You’ve gotta give me a big win, please. OK?” Trump told a crowd in Bossier City, where he said Edwards “double-crossed you and you can never trust him. He will never vote for us.”

Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards will face Republican Eddie Rispone in Nov. 12 runoff

During the first round of voting in October, Edwards took 47 percent of the vote to 27 percent for Rispone. Since then, Rispone has been trying to close the gap by unifying the Republican vote, which he split with the third place finisher, U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham.

Under Louisiana’s “jungle” primary system, candidates from all parties run together in the same contest, with the top two vote-getters advancing to the runoff if no one gets an outright majority.

Public polling in the governor’s race showed neither candidate with a statistically significant lead, pointing to a likely close result on Saturday.

One other statewide office will be on the ballot Saturday, the secretary of state’s race, where Republican incumbent Kyle Ardoin will face Democrat Gwen Collins-Greenup in a rematch of a 2018 special election won by Ardoin.

Edwards, 53, is one of just three Democratic governors in the South, along with North Carolina’s Roy Cooper and Virginia’s Ralph Northam. But unlike Northam and Cooper, Edwards has positioned himself as a conservative Democrat who opposes legal abortion and gun control, both of which have played well in Louisiana.

As a result, national Democrats, including the large crop of 2020 White House contenders, have conspicuously avoided campaigning on his behalf, although former President Barack Obama did make a robocall for the governor in the first round of the primary.

In 2015, Edwards claimed the governorship by defeating Republican U.S. Senator David Vitter, who was bogged down by personal scandals and the unpopularity of the outgoing GOP governor, Bobby Jindal.

Edwards signature achievements in office have been expanding Medicaid, over Republican objections, and dealing with a budget shortfall he inherited from Jindal.

However, the tax increases imposed to deal with the budget have become fodder for his Republican opponents, who say the new taxes have driven business out of the state.

Rispone, 70, owns an industrial contracting company that has made him one of Louisiana’s richest men. While he has long been a major GOP donor, this is his first race for political office, and he poured in more than $10 million of his own money to surge past Abraham into second place in the first round of voting.

Republicans have pulled out all the stops for Rispone in the runoff, with the Republican National Committee committing more than $2 million to the race. Trump, who carried Louisiana by 20 points in 2016, has visited three times, and Vice President Mike Pence has also campaigned on Rispone’s behalf.

Louisiana’s governor’s race is the last contest on the 2019 election calendar and comes less than two weeks after Kentucky’s Republican governor, Matt Bevin, was defeated for re-election by Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear, despite Trump campaigning on Bevin’s behalf.

Republicans had more success in Mississippi, where Republican Lieutenant Governor Tate Reeves won the governorship over Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood.

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Mississippi Votes: Republican Lieutenant Governor Tate Reeves wins governorship

Reeves defeats Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood with last minute push from President Donald Trump

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

JACKSON, Mississippi (CFP) — Mississippi Republican Lieutenant Governor Tate Reeves has capped a 16-year ascent through the ranks of state politics by capturing the governorship, extending the GOP’s lock on the office for another four years.

Reeves — buoyed by a pre-election visit to Tupelo by President Donald Trump — defeated Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood in the November 5 vote by a margin of 52 percent to 47 percent.

Governor-elect Tate Reeves addresses supporters in Jackson (WJTV via YouTube)

“This is the 12th time I have woke up on a Tuesday morning and put my fate in the hands of the good Lord and the voters of Mississippi,” Reeves told supporters in a victory speech in Jackson. “The Lord always gets it right, and I think the people of Mississippi usually get it right.”

Republicans also swept elections for lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state, auditor, treasurer and agriculture commissioner to continue the GOP’s dominance in the Magnolia State.

Democrats, who last won a governor’s race in 1999, were hoping that Hood — running to the right of national party on contentious social issues such as abortion and gun control — could break through against Reeves, who had to fight his way through a contentious GOP primary and runoff.

Hood, the only Democrat left holding statewide office, had won four races for attorney general but could not make the leap to the state’s top office in a state Trump carried by 28 points in 2016.

In his victory speech, Reeves thanked Trump and Vice President Mike Pence for coming to Mississippi to campaign on his behalf.

“It would have been easy for them to ignore an election for state office in little ol’ Mississippi,” Reeves said. “But they paid atention. They showed up, and they worked hard. And I will never, ever forget their support.”

The win by Reeves, 45, completes an ascent through state politics that began when he was elected as state treasurer in 2003 at age 29. After two terms as treasurer, he was elected twice as lieutenant governor and will now assume the state’s top political job in January.

The incumbent governor, Republican Phil Bryant, was term limited.

Republicans also retained their large majorities in both house of the legislature, although they fell short of getting a two-thirds majority in the House.

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Governorships, legislative control on ballot in 3 Southern states Tuesday

Voters in Kentucky, Mississippi and Virginia will cast ballots in off-year elections for state offices

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

Voters in three Southern states will troop to the polls Tuesday to decide their state’s balance of power and give a first indication of how the current fractious state of American politics might play out in the 2020 election.

In Kentucky and Mississippi, Democratic candidates have a shot at wresting governorships out of GOP hands. In Virginia, Democrats will be trying to complete a takeover of state government by gaining the handful of seats they need to flip both houses of the legislature — which would give them unfettered power to draw political maps after the 2020 census.

Towering over all of these races is President Donald Trump, who has put his personal political prestige on the line by going all in for Republican candidates in Kentucky and Mississippi. Although Trump is not in any trouble in either state in 2020, Democrats will no doubt crow if Trump proves unable to carry his preferred candidates over the line.

In Kentucky, Republican Governor Matt Bevin is seeking re-election after a tumultuous four years in Frankfort that have left him among the nation’s least popular chief executives. He is being challenged by his archenemy, Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear, who has repeatedly sued the governor and now hopes to replace him.

Bevin has tried to counter his low approval ratings by wrapping himself in the Trump mantle and painting Beshear as a far-left liberal, particularly on the issue of abortion. Bevin opposes legal abortion, which Beshear supports.

Beshear has countered by painting Bevin as a bully, particularly in his critical comments about public school teachers who have been protesting Republican-backed pension reform plans.

The other race of note in Kentucky is the contest to replace Beshear as attorney general between Republican Daniel Cameron, a protegé of Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and Democrat Greg Stumbo, who held the office from 2004 to 2008.

Although Republicans have become dominant in Kentucky politics in recent decades, the last time a Republican won a race for attorney general was 1943 — a streak of 15 consecutive wins that Cameron hopes to snap.

Cameron would also be the first African American to win a statewide race in Kentucky in his own right. (Current Lieutenant Governor Jenean Hampton was elected on a ticket with Bevin in 2015; he bounced her from his re-election ticket earlier this year.)

In Mississippi, two men who have served alongside each other in statewide office for the past 16 years, Republican Lieutenant Governor Tate Reeves and Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood, are facing off in the governor’s race.

Democrats, who haven’t won a governor’s race in the Magnolia State since 1999, are hoping that Hood — running to the right of national party on contentious social issues such as abortion and gun control — can break through against Reeves, who had to fight his way through a contentious GOP primary and runoff.

However, a wrinkle in Mississippi law may prove Hood’s undoing — to win, a candidate not only has to win the most votes on Tuesday but must also carry a majority of state House districts. If that threshold isn’t meant, the next governor will be selected by the Republican-controlled legislature, which will almost certainly give the job to Reeves.

The threshold requirement — implemented during the era of Jim Crow to prevent black candidates from winning statewide offices — is currently being challenged in federal court, a suit that will take on new resonance if Hood wins the most votes but doesn’t carry enough districts.

In Virginia, statewide offices aren’t on the ballot, but all 100 House seats and 40 Senate seats are up for grabs.

Currently, Republicans hold a narrow 21-19 in the Senate and a 51-49 majority in the House, which means a net shift of two seats in either house could switch it to Democratic control.

Virginia has been trending Democratic in recent years, and two years ago, Democrats made huge gains to nearly take control of the House while also sweeping statewide races for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general.

Democrats haven’t controlled the House since 1997 or the Senate since 2014. Should they take both chambers Tuesday, it will be the first time since 1993 that Democrats have controlled the legislature and the governorship, which will allow them to redraw legislative and congressional districts after the 2020 census.

Virginia’s congressional delegation currently has seven Democrats and four Republicans, after Democrats flipped three GOP-held seats in 2018. Controlling reapportionment would allow Democrats to protect those gains by drawing more favorable maps, as well as drawing new maps to cement their control of the legislature.

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