Last week’s Republican sweep of statewide office and the margin of the Reeves victory are troubling for most Democrats in our state. Monday morning quarterbacking is inevitable, and many of the observations have merit. I’d like to offer my perspective gained in more than two decades of work for progressive candidates and causes across the country. Here are a few key points to remember and some specific suggestions about the best way to move forward with the Mississippi Democratic Party.
Things to Remember
- We all knew it was an uphill battle.
Mississippi is an R+9 state in federal elections and with President Trump’s approval among whites in our state — 70% and climbing amid the impeachment controversy — Tate Reeves used the national Democratic brand to pommel Hood incessantly. Reeves’ mantra of “God, gays, guns, illegal immigrants…” was very effective.
- Jim Hood’s media, messaging and work ethic were all very good.
I strongly disagree with any contention that Hood’s TV ads were boring or tone deaf. He spoke to timely issues — Medicaid expansion, infrastructure repair and school funding — that were research tested and had even been adopted by Bill Waller’s GOP challenge effort. Hood campaigned in every corner of the state and made sure social media documented each visit. No campaign is perfect, but this was not an effort where Jim Hood’s team “blew it” with some tactical blunder.
- State Democratic parties in Red States are all underfunded and understaffed.
Even in Texas, with nearly ten times our population, the Democratic Party office struggles with the basics. The Electoral College drives the national Democratic Party’s resource allocation. Swing states get the most attention because that’s where presidential elections are won.
Bedwetters notwithstanding, there were significant accomplishments last Tuesday that offer encouragement for the future.
- For the first time ever, we have an African American woman representing a majority white district in Hester Jackson-McCray. DeSoto County Democrats mobilized to upset a hard-right Republican freshman after losing this district 68%-32% four years ago.
- Jim Hood won the city of Clinton that has a GOP mayor and an all-GOP Board of Aldermen, illustrating the potential for white crossover vote. The Democratic base vote percentage increased 13% in just eight years in this bedroom community.
- Jim Hood won Lafayette County, the first time a Democratic candidate for governor has won the county since 1999. He also won Madison County, the first time a Democrat has won this bedroom community since 1987.
- President Trump is a double-edged sword—his visit to NE MS increased GOP turnout there by 5% but Democratic turnout grew by 12% in the same area. He is a powerful reminder to base Democrats when our local candidate may be less exciting.
- Beyond Jim Hood, other statewide Democrats also showed improvement. Johnny Dupree outperformed his 2011 gubernatorial performance in 51 of the states 82 counties, including a 9-point gain in Desoto, a 7-point gain in Hinds, and 6-point gains in Oktibbeha. He did at least 5 points better in sixteen counties.
How to Move Forward
- Throw away the 2007 playbook.
Barack Obama changed elections in red states forever accelerating the pace that rural whites moved to the Republican Party. And after the final court decision on Citizens United, we saw an explosion of spending by very polarizing single interest groups and almost no emphasis on a “big tent” political party — D or R. Moreover, during the twelve years since Mr. Obama took center stage, we’ve seen massive populations shifts in Mississippi that drive where Democrats should be looking for votes. In 2007, 16% of John Arthur Eaves’ vote came from Metro Jackson and 14% came from Northeast Mississippi. This year, 22% of Hood’s vote came from the metro area, and just 9% came from Northeast Mississippi.
Finally, we should remember that there are many advanced campaign tools of the last decade that can help to level the playing field — social media, an explosion of available demographic and behavioral data on individual voters, and digital advertising.
- Don’t get distracted by the DNC Delegate selection process.
As fun as a trip to Milwaukee and the Democratic National Convention would be, Party activists would make a more lasting contribution in Mississippi by devoting less time campaigning for these coveted DNC delegate slots and more time vetting potential County and State Party Committee members. We need Democratic activists to work as steady over the next four years as many are inclined to do over the four weekends of DNC delegate selections in early 2020.
- Don’t expect financial help from Washington, DC.
As explained above, the DNC is brutal in its calculus about where they send discretionary dollars. Attention will be focused elsewhere first with the priorities being defeating vulnerable GOP Senators and beating President Trump in battleground states. Party building in Mississippi is way down their list.
- When it comes to voter data, Use It or Lose It.
The state Democratic Party has records from the 2018 canvassing programs on behalf of the Espy campaign and multiple County Party Committees. The Hood campaign produced additional useful data from its door to door efforts. Hoarding this and other canvassing data is ill advised. Activists and 2020 candidates should be encouraged to use all available data in their outreach. This will help prune the lists and upgrade phone and address records. It’s essential that we use one of the competitive advantages at our disposal.
- Build on the interest from out-of-state progressive organizations that have very recently invested in Mississippi.
We saw with Secretary Espy’s US Senate campaign in 2018 and again this year in certain legislative and down ballot races that national progressive groups spent money in Mississippi who had never invested before. There were different motives for different groups—some were drawn to a candidate because of a certain demographic profile while other groups were “experimenting” in Mississippi with tactics and techniques that might be employed elsewhere in 2020. We should nurture those relationships to see where our interests intersect with theirs in the coming election cycle.
- Encourage in-state progressive issue advocacy groups to meet year-round.
There is a “progressive table” in every blue state and swing state that meets regularly to compare notes, exchange best practices information, join forces on certain legislative issues, and periodically get involved in key elections. Most of these groups have parent organizations with financial resources and expertise that can be helpful in election season.
- Go where the votes are.
Mississippi is increasingly like the rest of the country in that Democrats’ best chances for growth are in urban centers, suburbs and college towns. Combine these trends with the realities of population shifts across the state and we see a much different electoral map.
- Last week only two counties in the Delta were among the top twenty in vote totals for Jim Hood.
- Traditional Republican strongholds like Harrison, DeSoto and Rankin are among the top five sources of Democratic votes.
- Suburbs are the best bang for the buck in canvassing and voter turnout efforts — voters live closer together and their polling places are nearer to their residence.
- There are more Democratic voters in Pearl than all of Humphreys County.
- There are more Democratic voters in Byram than all of Coahoma County.
- There are more Democratic voters in Ridgeland than all of Yazoo County.
- Compete and win local government races.
Democrats don’t have a solid bench for statewide candidates in 2021. We must be creative in where we pick our battles and the most promising initial outcomes are with the limited number of local government races over the next two years. Special elections in swing districts should become priorities. Democrats need to find a way to win again-no matter how small the race — given this new political landscape.
Winning can be contagious. And sadly, if we continue to ignore the new realities, losing will be too.