JACKSON, Miss. -- Longtime state Rep. Jeff Smith of Columbus switched to the Republican Party just before Wednesday's qualifying deadline for legislative races, and he said he still plans to run for the open spot of Mississippi House speaker in January.
Smith has served in the House for 20 years as a conservative Democrat and unsuccessfully challenged populist Democrat Billy McCoy of Rienzi for the speakership in January 2008 -- a nail-biter of a contest that McCoy won by a 62-60 vote.
McCoy announced last week that he won't seek re-election to the Legislature, and his decision opened a race for the job of presiding officer of the 122-member body. Smith said last week that he'd run for re-election this year as an independent, and he even filed qualifying papers.
Smith told The Associated Press on Wednesday that he decided to become Republican because the GOP recruited a candidate to run against him. He said he's hoping to secure his re-election in the Aug. 2 party primary rather than waiting until the Nov. 8 general election.
Smith said he now considers himself a moderate Republican.
"I sort of hated to change parties, but I've been so conservative for so long," Smith said. "It's not a big leap from being a super-conservative Democrat to being a Republican. I did have a stop-off for three weeks as an independent."
Democrat Bobby Moak of Bogue Chitto, who's unopposed for re-election in his own district, is also running for speaker. So is Republican Sid Bondurant of Grenada, who faces a Democrat in his district. Others say they're considering running for the top job in the House, which McCoy has held since January 2004.
Democrats now hold a 68-54 advantage over Republicans in the House, but it's unclear whether the partisan balance will hold.
All legislative candidates are running for four-year terms that begin in January.
Nine of the 52 Senate seats are open this year -- eight of them because incumbents aren't running and one because longtime Democratic Sen. Jack Gordon of Okolona died May 7.
Seventeen of the 122 House seats are open, all because incumbents chose not to seek re-election.
Sixteen Senate incumbents are unopposed, as are 48 House incumbents.
Two newcomers have a clear path to election. Republican Sean Tindall of Harrison County is the only person running in Senate District 49, a seat that's open because longtime Republican Sen. Billy Hewes of Gulfport is running for lieutenant governor. Republican John Thomas "Trey" Lamar III of Tate County is the only person running in House District 8, where Republican Rep. Larry Baker chose not to seek re-election.
Some other highlights of the 2011 legislative races:
-- Two senators are running for House seats. They are Republican Nolan Mettetal of Sardis and David Baria of Bay St. Louis.
Mettetal was elected to the Senate as a Democrat in 1999, 2003 and 2007. Mettetal struggled in the 2007 Democratic primary, defeating challenger Mona Pittman of Batesville by only 88 votes. Mettetal switched to the Republican Party in January 2008, shortly after starting the current four-year term.
Mettetal is now running for a House seat that's open because Democrat Warner McBride is not seeking re-election. One other Republican and two Democrats also are running for the House District 10 seat that McBride has held since January 1992. Four Democrats and one Republican are running for the Senate District 10 seat now held by Mettetal.
Baria has served one term in the Senate. He's running for a House seat that's open because Democrat J.P. Compretta is not seeking re-election. Compretta served in the House 1976-84 and continuously since 1988, and he has been House speaker pro tempore -- the chamber's second-in-command -- the past two terms. Baria and one Republican, Dorothy Wilcox of Hancock County, are running for the House District 122 seat Compretta is leaving. Two Democrats and four Republicans are running for the Senate District 46 seat now held by Baria.
-- State Democratic Party chairman Jamie Franks of Mooreville is running for the seat he held from January 1996 through January 2008. Franks was the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor in 2007, losing to Republican Phil Bryant. Franks is now challenging first-term Rep. Mark Duvall, D-Mantachie, in House District 19. One other Democrat and two Republicans also are in the race.
-- The only married couple in the House is on track for re-election. Democrats Kelvin Buck of Holly Springs and Kimberly Campbell Buck of Jackson are unopposed in their districts.
-- Troy Brown is again challenging Democratic Rep. Willie Perkins of Greenwood in House District 32. Brown is running as an independent, as he did when he challenged Perkins in 2007. Brown ran unsuccessfully as a Democrat for lieutenant governor in 1999 and 2003 and for U.S. Senate in 2000. Perkins has held the House seat since January 1993.
-- Three Democrats and one Republican qualified to run for the seat now held by Speaker McCoy, who has been in the House since January 1980.
-- Four Democrats and two Republicans are running for the Senate District 8 seat of the late Jack Gordon.