STARKVILLE — Mississippi’s 2019 gubernatorial ballot is now solidified, and while the issues remain basically unchanged since the primaries, the framing for the Nov. 5 will be different.
That election will pit Republican nominee Tate Reeves of Rankin County against Democratic nominee Jim Hood of Chickasaw County. They will face the Constitution Party’s Bob Hickingbottom and independent David Singletary, but those candidates have not by any realistic measure mounted credible campaigns.
Reeves, the incumbent Republican lieutenant governor, and Hood, the incumbent Democratic attorney general, have each been elected in the past four consecutive elections with substantial majorities of the vote.
To put a finer point on it, the same voters who twice chose Republicans Haley Barbour and Phil Bryant as governor also chose Democrat Hood as their attorney general.
And Hood is campaigning on some of the same themes that made former Chief Justice Bill Waller a thorn in the side of Reeves in the GOP primaries — Medicaid expansion as a means to save Mississippi’s rural hospitals, a pay-as-you-go program of infrastructure improvements (although Reeves has accused Hood of a “flip-flop” on raising the state’s gas tax), and more money for public education at multiple levels.
To be sure, Hood is the best hope that state Democrats have had in a gubernatorial campaign since Ronnie Musgrove in 1999. Like Waller, Hood’s campaign style has a more populist appeal; unlike Waller, Hood is not afraid to give as good as he gets in the heat of political battle. He is a prosecutor well-skilled in making his case and driving home his points, with little concern for stepping on toes or hurt feelings.
But Hood also faces the same partisan challenges that have plagued most Democratic gubernatorial contenders in Mississippi in the modern era — the “D” behind their names in one of the reddest of the red states. Like so many Democrats before him at the top of the ticket, Hood will likely struggle with being identified with the national Democratic Party platform and the partisan warfare between congressional Democrats and the Trump White House.
Mississippi voters witnessed the impact of President Trump’s forays into the state in the 2018 U.S. Senate race as he campaigned on behalf of Cindy Hyde-Smith. Clearly, it’s not a far leap to see Trump making appearances on behalf of Reeves this fall.
Beyond Trump’s appeal in Mississippi, the struggle inside the Democratic Party between more traditional Democrats such as Joe Biden and “progressive” Democrats under the leadership of Bernie Sanders and others create an enormous obstacle for Democrats such as Hood.
Although Hood has long identified as “pro-life,” the realities are that his party at the national level identifies solidly as “pro-choice.” For Southern Democrats, the abortion question remains the most difficult of political tightropes to walk.
If you were a fan of what the Reeves campaign did to successfully frame Waller as “too liberal” in the GOP second primary, expect the Reeves forces to double-down on those same themes in the general election against Hood.
As for Hood, look for a campaign based in great measure on comparing the lives and futures of working people versus the so-called “elites” in terms of economic opportunity, access to education and health care, and infrastructure and rural digital access.
Expect a bruising, full-contact general election.
• Sid Salter is director of the Office of University Relations at Mississippi State University. Contact him at email@example.com.