Sid Salter-syndicated columnist – 8/11/2015

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Salter: Multiple conspiracy theories arise after Gray’s primary victory

STARKVILLE – There’s more than a little novelty to a political candidate who doesn’t spend a dime, doesn’t campaign, and doesn’t even vote for himself to win the gubernatorial nomination of a major party – as Terry truck driver and newly-minted Mississippi Democratic Party gubernatorial nominee Robert Gray has discovered.

Gray unexpectedly and rather easily dispatched the state Democratic Party establishment-backed candidate Vicki Slater and Dr. Valerie Short on the way to winning his party’s nomination without a runoff.

After the brief “who is Robert Gray?” reaction came a torrent of political conspiracy theories as to why Gray emerged from political anonymity to win the Democratic nomination.

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First came fingers pointed at the state’s GOP – on the political meme that Republicans didn’t want to see Slater as the Democratic opponent for incumbent Republican Gov. Phil Bryant. So for Republican voters “crossing over” to vote in the Democratic primary to help choose local officials in areas where Dems still hold sway in courthouse elections, there was a supposed plot to check the box for Gray to defeat Slater.

If that’s the case, the organizers of that supposed stealth effort to block Slater from the November ballot should be recruited to work for the CIA. Why? Because there is simply no discernible trail of evidence – sample ballots, social media messages, emails blasts, signage, flyers, nothing – leading to that conclusion. If the GOP implemented such a strategy, they did it with smoke signals or mental telepathy.

A more plausible explanation is the simpler one – the name “Gray” comes ahead of the names “Short” and “Slater” when arranged alphabetically. The first name on the ballot got the most votes.

Still, Gray’s win was a head-scratcher and set tongues wagging in both the Democratic and Republican parties.

Not since the late Cliff Finch parlayed a lunch box and some well-documented stints bagging groceries and driving a bulldozer into winning election as governor of Mississippi back in 1975 has so much media attention been paid to the blue-collar attributes of a candidate as has been paid to Gray in the last several days.

Of course, Finch was a lawyer and a veteran prosecutor and the blue collar tableaus he created were more a reflection of the Batesville attorney’s youth rather than his status at the time of the campaign. No matter, for Mississippi voters ate up the image of the “working man’s candidate” for governor.

The facts were that after a youth spent in rural poverty, Finch later won a seat in the state House of Representatives in 1959 and later was elected district attorney in Panola County. He also ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor in 1971. Finch died in 1986.

But what separates the successful Finch political gimmick from Gray’s reality in facing off with Bryant and perennial Reform Party candidate Shawn O’Hara in November is that fact that Finch campaigned daily and spent a boatload of money financing his campaign.

Gray, like any Democrat running statewide, starts with 40 to 45 percent of the vote available as low hanging fruit. Those numbers are likely to hold whether Gray engages and actively campaigns during the general election or not.

But to advance those numbers, Gray and the Democrats he represents will have to engage in a more tradition campaign effort complete with paid campaign advertising.

Even then, Republicans have won the last three gubernatorial elections in Mississippi with 53 percent (Haley Barbour over Ronnie Musgrove in 2003), 58 percent (Barbour over John Arthur Eaves, Jr. in 2007), and 61 percent (Phil Bryant over Johnny Dupree in 2011).

So while Robert Gray’s sensational upset win in the Democratic Primary deserves the attention it’s getting, the fundamental mathematics of Mississippi general election politics still heavily favors Bryant in November – whether Gray decides to vote for himself in the general election or not.

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at