JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — After being in office for over a decade, Mississippi state Sen. Dean Kirby got challenged in the Republican primary. He won with 70% of the vote.
That was in 2003 — and it remains the last time Kirby faced an opponent. The longtime Jackson-area senator is on the ballot again this year without either a Democratic or Republican challenger.
While the length of Kirby’s uncontested streak is unusual, his situation is not. More than four-fifths of Mississippi’s legislative candidates will have no major-party opposition in the Nov. 7 general election. And more than half of this year’s winners will have faced no other Republicans or Democrats in either the primary or the general election.
“I think people are happy with the state and the way things are going,” Kirby, Mississippi’s Senate president pro tem, said in explaining the lack of challengers.
Though Mississippi represents an extreme example, it highlights a national decline in competition for state legislative seats. New research suggests the reasons are more complex than mere voter satisfaction with incumbents. It also raises questions about the ability of American voters to hold their elected representatives accountable.
In some states, “there’s so many uncontested seats that one party wins the chamber before an election takes place,” said Steven Rogers, a political scientist at Saint Louis University who focuses on state legislatures.
A democracy “relies on this notion that the people will have some sort of choice,” Rogers added. But “without someone running for office, there isn’t really a choice.”
In Mississippi, the percentage of legislative seats with no major-party opposition in the general election has risen steadily from 63% in 2011 to 85% this year. The percentage with no Republican or Democratic challengers in either the primary or the general election has grown from 45% to 57% over that same time, according to data compiled for The Associated Press by Ballotpedia, a nonprofit organization that tracks elections.
Rogers’ research found that legislative competition around the U.S. has been dwindling for decades. Though contested elections were common in the 1960s and 1970s, about 35% of incumbent state lawmakers did not face either a primary or general election challenger from 1991 to 2020, according to Rogers’ new book, “Accountability in State Legislatures.”
One reason is political gerrymandering — a process by which those in power draw voting districts to give their party’s candidates an advantage.
Lawmakers are less likely to face challenges when one political party holds an overwhelming majority in the legislature and when district boundaries are drawn to include voters predominately favoring one party, Rogers found. Competition also is lower when lawmakers’ salaries are lower. And fewer challengers are likely to step forward when they are of the same party as an unpopular president.
All those factors are in play this year in Mississippi. Republicans currently hold lopsided legislative majorities. The vast majority of districts are packed with voters favoring one party. The legislative salary is $23,500, plus a daily expense allowance when lawmakers are at work. And President Joe Biden is underwater in public opinion polls, adding to the challenge for fellow Democrats in Mississippi.
“Candidates don’t want to run races they think they’re going to lose,” said Abhi Rahman, communications director for the national Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.
The DLCC is spending a few thousand dollars this year on several legislative races in the largely uncompetitive Republican-leaning states of Mississippi and Louisiana. It said it has spent $50,000 in Democratic-controlled New Jersey, one of just four states with legislative elections this year. But it has spent $2.2 million so far on legislative races in Virginia.
Other Democratic- and Republican-aligned groups also are pouring millions of dollars into Virginia’s legislative races.
The stakes are high in Virginia because Democrats currently hold a narrow majority in the Senate while Republicans hold a slim majority in the House of Delegates and control the governor’s office. Both parties see a pathway to a legislative majority. The races also are being watched as a test of the two major parties’ messaging ahead of the national 2024 elections.
In contrast to Mississippi, the percentage of Republican or Democratic candidates in Virginia facing no major-party opposition in either the primary or general election has declined from 61% in 2011 to 28% this year, according to Ballotpedia data. The districts in place for this year’s election were crafted by court-appointed experts after a bipartisan commission responsible for redrawing boundaries based on 2020 census data failed to reach a consensus.
“In Virginia, there’s a sense that no matter what the district is, you at least have a puncher’s chance,” Rahman said. “Whereas in states like Mississippi and Louisiana, a lot of people feel like they’re just running to get creamed.”
Though Democrats are a minority in Mississippi, many of the districts they do win are packed with a large proportion of their voters.
Three Democratic lawmakers will be succeeded by their sons running in uncontested races this year. Sen. Barbara Blackmon and Rep. Ed Blackmon, who are married to each other, both initially qualified for reelection with one of their sons in the Senate race and one in the House race. After nobody else signed up to run, the incumbents dropped out and cleared the way for Bradford Blackmon to be elected to the Senate and Lawrence Blackmon to the House. Sen. Robert Jackson’s son, Reginald Jackson, is unopposed for his father’s seat.
Though he lacks such family ties, first-time Republican candidate Andy Berry also is getting an uncontested path to the state Senate after a two-term Republican incumbent chose not to seek reelection in a reconfigured district south of Jackson. Berry, who has worked the past nine years for the Mississippi Cattlemen’s Association and the affiliated Mississippi Beef Council, has connections to three of the four counties in the district. He grew up in one, lives in another and has a cattle farm in a third.
Though Berry said he’s “very blessed” to be guaranteed a victory, he is still asking people for their vote by reminding them that casting a ballot is their chance to have a voice in government. But it’s hard to spur interest without an opponent.
“Turnout is a struggle in all these elections,” Berry said.
Lieb reported from Jefferson City, Missouri.