ms gov

Mississippi Governors Race Moves to Lean Republican

Jessica Taylor
September 27, 2019

Mississippi is the second governor's race in the Deep South that is surprisingly competitive for Democrats in 2019 — though they have a much tougher climb than next door in Louisiana. 

Popular GOP Gov. Phil Bryant is term-limited. His No. 2, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, survived a Republican primary and subsequent runoff to capture the GOP nomination. Democrats have one of their strongest statewide candidates in years with Attorney General Jim Hood, but in a state President Trump carried by 18 points, it won't be easy. 

The two men couldn't be more different stylistically. Hood is just the type of Democrat who could win in deep, deep red Mississippi — his ads portray him as a good 'ole boy who drives his pickup to church on Sundays, cleans his guns and fixes his tractor. The bespectacled Reeves comes off as more wonkish and serious. Both men have been looming figures in their parties for years, with each being on the ballot — and winning — every four years, dating back to 2003. In a way, this matchup has felt inevitable for years. 

"If it's about policy, Jim's in trouble. If it's about personality, Tate's in trouble," said one Republican strategist in the state. 

Reeves had a setback after being forced into a bitter runoff with Bill Waller Jr., a former state supreme court chief justice whose father had been a Democratic governor in the 1970s. Waller amassed support from several former Mississippi Republican Party chairs, and he declined to endorse Reeves after he won. 

Republicans say the good thing is that at least Waller — who, like Hood, also called for Medicaid expansion and higher teacher pay — didn't endorse the Democratic nominee, a scenario that remains unlikely. Democrats' polling shows Hood is narrowly ahead overall — and the Democrat is making key inroads with former Waller voters, especially more moderate suburban Mississippians. They believe he could get over 40 percent of Waller's voters. Republicans say their polling doesn't worry them, arguing that August primary will be far enough removed from the minds of voters and Republican base voters will come home. While even some in the acknowledge that Reeves is sometimes stilted at retail politicking, many say he's getting better on the stump. 

But even if Hood looks like an ideal candidate on paper for Mississippi Democrats, this is still a state that has an anemic state party and has to find a way to wrestle with an unpopular national Democratic Party that Reeves and his allies are all too eager to tie him to. Yes, Hood may be anti-abortion and pro-gun, but Republicans have found ways to chip away at even that. 

In one recent ad from Reeves, the lieutenant governor pokes fun at both the attorney general's omnipresent truck and his surname, asking voters to "look under the hood." Hood has tried to sidestep questions about President Trump and the 2020 Democratic candidates, but the ad points out he was still a delegate for both Obama and Clinton in 2012 and 2016, respectively. Other ads from the state party have tried to tie him to other D.C. politicians like Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, but Hood's allies argue he's been able to rebuff the national Democrat label for years now and this time will be no different. 

Still, Hood hasn't run before in the Trump era, and partisanship has never been higher. Many people who voted for Hood also voted for Trump in 2016. Now the attorney general has to convince them to try and stick with him. Democrats in the state say Hood's cultivated a white rural base for years and can appeal to the same blue-collar voters that Trump did but Clinton couldn't. 

But things have to be judged differently in the current environment, and even the events of the past week that have the House moving toward impeachment are probably a boon for Reeves in prying those voters away from Hood. And most people in the state expect Trump to hold a rally in Mississippi sometime before election day— a development which Democrats begrudgingly acknowledge could help seal a Reeves victory. Reeves is also highlighting his conservative policies, not just his anti-abortion record but also his opposition to the gas tax and Medicaid expansion. 

Hood also needs strong turnout from African-American voters in the state in order to pull off the upset, but some recent moves could alienate black voters. He's refused to endorse the Democratic nominee who's vying to succeed him in the AG's office, Jennifer Riley Collins, a black woman. Staying neutral in the race is an odd position for the man leading the Democratic slate in the state, but Hood's campaign says he's always declined to make other endorsements when he's running himself. Democrats say it's an issue not getting much traction with voters, but Republicans are eager to bring it up. 

Hood's campaign is also pushing an investigation into a frontage road that was built connecting Reeves's neighborhood to a nearby shopping center — but it's one that he personally supervised as attorney general and is now using as a major crux of his campaign. The Hill's Reid Wilson wrote that the "43-page report is heavy on inference and light on conclusions" and that good government groups raised concerns about the politicization of the report. But Hood's campaign believes it shows the "swampiness" of Reeves and they plan to continue pushing it. Reeves allies say the issue's been a flop. 

The two won't debate until Oct. 10 — the same day their fundraising reports are due, which will give us a better idea of the resources each side will have in their six-week sprint to Election Day. Reeves just started outspending Hood on air, but both sides say they'll have plenty of money to make the necessary arguments to voters before Nov. 5. 

There's another hiccup for Hood even if he does squeak out a victory on Election Day — an antiquated state law that has its roots in the Jim Crow era requires statewide candidates to get both a majority of the popular vote and win a majority of the state legislative districts. If the first-place finisher fails to do that, the race will be punted to the state House, who will then decide who the winner is — and there's a GOP supermajority in that body. A lawsuit is challenging the statute as discriminatory but isn't expected to be decided before election day. Third-party candidates could mean a winning candidate only gets a plurality of votes too. Most Mississippi politicos don't expect this scenario to play out, but if it does, it's almost an insurance policy for Reeves if the legislature gets involved. 

We currently have this race in Likely Republican, which given the competitive nature of this contest seems too rosy, so we're shifting it to Lean Republican. Reeves still has the advantage for numerous reasons, while virtually everything has to go right in order for Hood to pull off the upset.