HATTIESBURG, Miss.—About 50 people showed up at a venue that would seat 1,200 on Wednesday night to hear Republican candidates explain why voters should elect them as Mississippi's next attorney general—the state's chief legal officer who holds the power to bring or defend against lawsuits on behalf of the state.
In the mostly hollow auditorium at the William Carey University campus in Hattiesburg, longtime state GOP lawyer Andy Taggart debated Mississippi Rep. Mark Baker of Brandon. The two often found common ground in their shared criticisms of the current Democratic attorney general, Jim Hood, who is running for governor this year.
Both men specifically targeted Hood for criticism for his defense of Mississippi's recently passed six-week abortion ban, known as the "heartbeat bill," in federal court. Unlike Democrats and liberal activists who were angry that Hood defended it at all, though, Baker and Taggart criticized him for not defending it with enough vigor. Baker said Hood was "AWOL on the heartbeat bill" because he did not personally appear in court while State attorneys defended it last month.
"He doesn't show up at all in the court hearing, the court hearing goes against the state of Mississippi, and he raises his hand and says, 'Well, I'll appeal it,'" said Taggart, a long-time Republican in Mississippi who was chief of staff to former Gov. Kirk Fordice. "Well, thank you very much. Where were you yesterday is what I want to know."
U.S. District Court Judge Carlton Reeves struck down the six-week ban late last month, but Hood is appealing it, along with a 15-week abortion ban the Legislature passed last year, to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, a more conservative judicial panel based in New Orleans. If he becomes attorney general, Baker said he will make "the rights of the unborn" a top priority.