October 10, 2007
In Mississippi, Democrat Runs in G.O.P. Lane
By ADAM NOSSITER
STARKVILLE, Miss., Oct. 5 — The candidate is running to serve his Creator. He is running to restore prayer in schools, bring Jesus into public discourse, force the “money changers” from the state capitol, and move his extensive gun collection into the governor’s mansion.
It is not extraordinary in the local context, except that John Arthur Eaves Jr., the man saying these things, is the Democratic candidate for governor of Mississippi. And the politician he is trying to unseat with these shots from the right is a Republican star, Gov. Haley Barbour.
And indeed Mr. Barbour looks ever more irritated by this upstart challenger’s talk of God-and-guns and banning abortion — a mirror-image strategy some call logical in this toughest of regions for Democrats.
The Mississippi governor, riding high on an image of competence after Hurricane Katrina, is unlikely to be toppled in the election, on Nov. 6, say analysts and even friends of Mr. Eaves, a born-again, largely self-financed trial lawyer wealthy from asbestos litigation and other cases who won the Democratic primary in August.
But the hybrid campaign — equal parts born-again Christian fervor and attacks on the “big tobacco companies, big oil companies, big insurance” that Mr. Eaves says are behind the campaign of Mr. Barbour, a former lobbyist — illustrates the steep challenges faced by Democrats in a region that has remained stubbornly loyal to Republicans, even as they lose ground everywhere else.
“Your only chance of winning is throwing a Hail Mary pass,” said Hob Bryan, a Democratic state senator. “Haley’s suddenly got to start talking to the Christians, and they were just supposed to vote for you anyway, because God says you can’t vote for a Democrat.”
The challenge for Democrats in Mississippi is to build on a base of perhaps 40 percent of the vote, made up of blacks and yellow-dog Democrat voters; it is a difficult though not insurmountable hurdle. With Mr. Barbour, the former Republican National Committee chairman, as an overwhelming favorite, Mr. Eaves has chosen to force a classic Republican gambit back on Republicans themselves.
Democrats in the South “always have to clear this cultural hurdle first,” said Thomas F. Schaller, associate professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and an expert on Southern politics. “This is, generally speaking, the way you have to do it in the South.”
Already, this most unorthodox of Democratic campaigns — a strange contortion of swings from the far right, aimed from the left — is attracting attention, some grass-roots support in a Deep South state with a history of hardshell populism, and enough last-minute scorn from Mr. Barbour that Eaves workers are gleeful merely at having forced the powerful incumbent on the attack.
On Main Street in the small towns, some nod appreciatively as Mr. Eaves evokes a “new day in Mississippi, where our children go to school with voluntary, student-led school prayers.”
As he intones in one television commercial, “We have a responsibility to provide a moral framework for our kids.”
Mr. Barbour, who will be 60 years old on Oct. 22, has clearly been annoyed to be the subject of such criticism from a Democrat. “My opponent loves to quote the Bible,” Mr. Barbour said sarcastically at a debate here last week — an unusual line of attack in a state with more churches per capita, by some counts, than any other. “I’ll spare you the sanctimony,” the governor said at another point, swatting down yet more inspiration from Scripture.
“This campaign should be on public policy,” the exasperated governor continued, at the debate at Mississippi State University here. “That’s what I want to focus on, making life better for Mississippians,” he insisted, after an evening of holy writ from Mr. Eaves.
The Eaves campaign, with its heavy emphasis on prayer and faith, says it is gaining with evangelicals and born-again Christians in Mississippi, a voting bloc making up perhaps half of the electorate here. And evangelicals are paying attention.
Observing from his headquarters in Tupelo, Miss., the Rev. Donald Wildmon, executive director of the American Family Association, a conservative Christian advocacy group, confesses to being flummoxed: “Here you have a Democrat, most of the time who are liberals, talking about issues you would expect coming from a conservative Republican. How’s that going to play out? I think it’s going to be interesting.”
Others — Mr. Barbour’s campaign staff members, along with some preachers — are skeptical, and national Democrats are nowhere to be seen around this race. Indeed, Mr. Eaves said some told him they were staying away because he is strongly anti-abortion. He even rebuked the Democratic National Committee for leaving Jesus out of an Easter statement.
Mr. Eaves, soft-spoken, smooth-faced and well-known in Mississippi even at 41 thanks to billboards, television advertisements and a few high-profile cases, does not see his venture as a hybrid.
“I’m a Democrat because Democrats invest in people; I’m a Democrat because I’m a Christian,” he said in a recent interview, after shaking hands at a diner in the courthouse town of Kosciusko. “Jesus came to help the people. He healed the sick, and he tried to help the poor. The Democrats’ core fiber is to help people. That was Jesus’ mission.”
The campaign has been replete with suggestions that Mr. Barbour has maintained a financial connection to his old lobbying firm in Washington. Mr. Barbour says his assets are held in a blind trust, the details of which he refuses to disclose, though one of his former partners has said the governor receives a fixed retirement “payment” from the firm.
“Governor, just come clean, tell us where your treasure is,” Mr. Eaves intoned in a preachery sing-song at last week’s debate.
On the stump, he makes far more headway with his message about prayer. Worship in school is clearly on the voters’ minds, at least as much as new jobs Mr. Barbour boasts of bringing with some splashy industrial catches.
As Mr. Eaves strode into the Choctaw County courthouse recently, in the tiny town of Ackerman, he was asked: “How do you put school prayer back in schools?” The question came unprompted from Dee Ann Williams in the county extension office. “Here’s how you do it,” Mr. Eaves answered readily. “Voluntary, student-led. We’re setting aside the time.”
Afterward, Ms. Williams said she was well satisfied with the answer.
At Pap’s Place, a diner on Main Street in Ackerman, the Bible was open under the Elvis albums and the Ten Commandments were on an engraved plaque in the window.
“John Arthur sounds pretty good. He’s going to cut the sales tax and put prayer back in schools,” said Charles Salley, behind the cash register, as Mr. Eaves’s bus pulled out of town.
“Put the Good Lord back in everything. That’s a priority,” Mr. Salley said.
just supposed to vote for you anyway, because God says you can’t vote for a Democrat.”