How to Win a Primary for Free

In Mississippi, truck-driver Robert Gray barely campaigned for governor. But being first alphabetically on the ballot may have helped him win the Democratic primary.

In the age of big money and super PACs, winning a major party's nomination for governor without spending any money seems unfathomable.

Yet that's exactly what Robert Gray did last night. The 46-year-old, self-employed truck driver from Jackson spent no money and barely campaigned despite technically running for governor of Mississippi. Gray won 51 percent of the Democratic primary vote anyway, besting attorney Vicki Slater and physician Valerie Adream Smartt Short.

Gray didn't even vote for himself, though it didn't hurt his 60,000-vote margin much. He told the Associated Press that he was too busy.

"I mean, I didn't really do too much campaigning," Gray told National Journal. "I would go to a couple of places and, you know, that's 20 or 30 people, and I decided then that it wasn't — there was a lot of time that wasn't being used pretty well. I know my two opponents, they campaigned real, very hard. But still they wasn't getting to the mass majority of people."

It's impossible to know exactly what prompted Gray's victory, but he may have had two key advantages: His last name — Gray was listed first alphabetically on Democratic primary ballots, according to a sample ballot — and his first name. Some studies have shown bias against female candidates when matched up against male opponents.

One of Gray's opponents, Slater, was the handpicked choice of the Democratic establishment in Mississippi. They settled on Slater — who had never sought nor held public office before — after Attorney General Jim Hood and other promising gubernatorial candidates decided not to challenge Bryant. Democratic leaders in Jackson and around the state at the time said they hoped Slater would be able to raise the money necessary to take on the governor.

While Gray said he'd been in touch with the Democratic Party in the state, he said his work schedule precluded him from being "really involved like the other two candidates were." Slater did not respond to an immediate request for comment.

"The party will support our nominee," Mississippi Democratic Party Communications Director Ouida Meruvia said in an email. "We have been in contact with Mr. Gray, and we're looking forward to working with him."

Going forward, Gray recognized that he's going to have to "do a lot more" to beat Bryant in his long-shot challenge. But don't expect any big fundraising drives.

"Well, I mean, if people donate, that'd be fine. "¦ It's a large state, but it's not too big," Gray said. "You know, a little gas here and there, that's all that's needed."

This story has been updated with comment from the Mississippi Democratic Party.