Election 2019 marked the culmination of a goal for outgoing Governor Phil Bryant – namely to carry all 8 statewide offices, two elected commissions and both houses of the legislature firmly under his party’s control. It’s hard to overstate the accomplishment. The political legacy he leaves is undeniable.
There are lots of interesting takeaways from the night.
The Big Bet
Mississippi Democrat Party strategy for the last 20 years or so seems to have been to deliver a monolithic African American vote and couple that with just a slice of white voters to cobble together a winning coalition. Party Chairman Bobby Moak finally landed the prize of 4 term AG Jim Hood to lead his party’s ticket. Evidently, the thinking was that although the party couldn’t fill even nominally competitive downticket candidates through a process unnecessarily shrouded in secrecy, they were willing to pay any price to get a Democrat in the Governor’s Mansion to use the appointment power of that office to rebuild the party from near extinction.
Hood’s history as a Democrat was tortured in that he was always afraid to be a “party” guy. Although he supported Hillary Clinton, he was nowhere to be found when it came to supporting Barack Obama or really any other elected Democrats. His public snub of this party’s nominee for his position, Jennifer Riley Collins, spoke volumes. He didn’t fundraise for other candidates. He didn’t endorse many candidates. He didn’t openly interface with Bennie Thompson or other major leaders in the Mississippi Democratic Party.
In terms of being involved with the black community, he was similarly insular. Most all of the people affecting money or policy in his campaign apparatus and at the AG’s office are white. He had political support from black legislative leaders and a few elected officials, but Tuesday night made clear that his connectivity to the black community was mostly transactional in nature. A last minute “Hail Mary” robocall from Barack Obama (that even after it happened neither the campaign nor Hood himself would fully acknowledge) tells you all you need to know about Hood’s real standing in the black community. Tepid at best.
Hood’s campaign appeared to assume away the black vote in Mississippi completely. He focused 80%+ of his campaign spend on ads that appealed to rural white voters (carrying guns, sitting on his tailgate, and shooting bottles). Turnout was down from the 2018 runoff election by 8-15% in a lot of heavily Democrat counties (Hinds, Yazoo, Washington, Bolivar) and indeed even a lot of traditionally Republican counties. But Hood got swamped in his own backyard. Alcorn, Tishomingo, Union and Monroe were all counties that no doubt reacted to the Donald Trump visit and got the “Trump Bump” with double digit percentage increases in turnout over the 2018 runoff, while the vast majority of counties statewide saw fewer voters.
As it turns out, acting like a gun-toting, truck-driving redneck on TV in Mississippi is not that much of a differentiator. Urban voters weren’t energized by Hood. Rural Mississippians weren’t impressed.
Crossover Votes and a Golden Opportunity for Republicans
Speaking of the black vote, there were some interesting sidenotes. Inasmuch as race plays a huge role in our politics, there were some bright spots. First, George Flaggs endorsement and TV ad for Republican Delbert Hosemann marked the first time in my memory that a sitting black elected official endorsed a Republican for statewide office on a TV commercial. And that likely helped Hosemann. It’s undeniable that Hosemann got some black votes. That’s good for Republicans. In Hinds County, Jennifer Riley-Collins got 73.6% of the vote. Her fellow Democrat Jay Hughes got 66.3%. Hosemann got 33.7% meaning that there was a universe of 7% of voters in a heavily African American county that voted for both Collins and Hosemann. That’s not an isolated thing.
The Central District Transportation Commissioners race juxtaposed against the PSC race showed that there a universe of white voters that supported Willie Simmons, the Democrat. Simmons was a bipartisan figure in the State Senate and his narrow victory in that race showed that there was some crossover support for him as well.
GOP Chairman Lucien Smith and Phil Bryant have scored a huge win. But race is still largely a blind spot in Republican elective politics in Mississippi. Bryant has been pretty intentional on outreach through civil justice reform and some appointments. I’ve long maintained that the first black statewide elected official in Mississippi will have an R by their name. But that’s not going to happen by accident. The political pendulum will always swing, but Republicans need to be intentional about recruiting black voters and black candidates into their ranks. Republicans are now officially on the clock.
Madison a purple county?
Madison and Rankin County have always been mentioned in the same breath as heavily Republican counties that are essentially suburbs of Jackson. But Madison is trending more purple. I’ve used the word “Starbucks Republican” to describe the Bill Waller voters (he won Madison 68/32 in July). Madison County is starting to exhibit true suburban sensibilities like you would find in a Virginia or Pennsylvania suburban area. Madison voted for Hood by a razor thin majority over Reeves. It voted for Cindy Hyde-Smith 53/46 over Espy in 2018. Meanwhile Rankin voted 71/29 for Hyde-Smith and voted 64/34 for Reeves over Hood. But the bottom line is that Madison is not as reliably conservative as it has historically trended and that’s a trendline that bears watching.
Democrat navel gazing and media complicity
There’s been a high volume of Democrat navel gazing in light of Tuesday night’s shellacking. The crew at the liberal news site, Mississippi Today, has been leading the charge.
If every eligible black person voted for Jim Hood, the result likely would have been the same. These election results were brought to you by white people. If you're disappointed about the outcome, wag your finger at them https://t.co/XZWBogzVfp
— R.L. Nave (@rlnave) November 6, 2019
The Mississippi Democratic Party as we know it is officially dead.
White moderates have held the power. They've proven they can't win, and they've long isolated black progressives.
A huge reckoning is coming early 2020. Don't be surprised to see a complete leadership change.
— Adam Ganucheau (@GanucheauAdam) November 6, 2019
At the end of Hood’s concession speech, he went out of his way to thank the media. As complicit, fawning and googly-eyed as most of the Mississippi media establishment has been for Hood over the years, I get it. But in the end, despite trying their damnedest, the media did him no favors. Never ever was he challenged by the media for his associations (or lack thereof) or on any specifics with regards to policy. He was allowed to overly curate his press existence. For all his talk of transparency, our experience was that he was anything but. Voters aren’t stupid. They know when they’re being put on. When the Obama robocall came, reporters were openly calling it a “deep fake” and not for one second was Hood called out by any outlet for the utter and complete hypocrisy of employing someone 13 hours before the voting started that he wouldn’t even mention on the campaign trail. When it hit social media, it was like a bolt of lightning and for thousands of conservatives, it confirmed what they always suspected . . . despite him acting like a redneck, Hood wasn’t a conservative at all.
But Ganucheau is correct that the leadership in the Mississippi Democrat party is bankrupt. Of course Ganucheau and Nave’s prescriptions are incorrect. Black voters in Mississippi are generally not super “progressive” in the national political sense. There are a lot of socially conservative black working class voters that simply don’t engage in nationally super-progressive politics. Becoming more “progressive” to win in a conservative state makes about as much sense as eating a cake to lose weight.
And it’s hard to make the case to keep Moak on as the party chairman. Folks I’ve talked to in Democratic circles are fuming. The Mississippi Democratic Trust, which was essentially set up as a shadow organization to control money and influence outside the official party apparatus ought to fold up shop, too. Until and unless the Democrat Party finds (1) leaders that can connect with their rank and file voters (and not the moneyed elites that are way out of touch with their party’s base) and (2) articulate a strategy that can win races (hint – it’s likely more conservative), it’s going to keep getting what it deserves . . . beat.