Two long-time Mississippi politicians are competing to replace the state’s popular, term-limited Republican governor, Phil Bryant, in an election early next month.
Bryant’s lieutenant governor, Tate Reeves, is the Republican candidate, and he holds a slight edge over his Democratic opponent, Jim Hood, Mississippi’s attorney general. Hood has been state AG since 2003, having won the job four times by a margin of at least ten points; in his latest, and closest, reelection bid, in 2015, he defeated Republican Mike Hurst 55–44 percent.
Hood’s popularity shows, too. He dominated the Democratic primary this summer, beating out seven other candidates by a nearly 60-point margin. Reeves, meanwhile, was forced to compete in a GOP-primary runoff after William Waller, a former chief justice of the state supreme court, prevented him from earning majority support in the first round of voting. (Reeves ended up defeating Waller in the late-August runoff 54 percent to 45 percent.)
Even so, most experts say Reeves has the edge, both because Mississippi has become a reliably Republican state and because he has the advantage of being associated with the hugely popular Governor Bryant, who according to Morning Consult polling has a positive net-approval rating of nearly 30 points among all voters statewide, and of over 70 points among state Republicans. Inside Elections and the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia both say the race “leans Republican.” In early October, the Cook Political Report shifted its read of the contest from “likely Republican” to “leans Republican.”
Clearly the blue underdog in a red state, Hood appears to be aiming to work his way into the governor’s seat by assuring voters that he’s a moderate Democrat, attempting to avoid being caricatured as a progressive while also drawing a contrast between himself and the highly conservative Reeves.
“The crazies on both extremes of our parties have been driving the agenda, and people are sick of it,” Hood said in a speech earlier this year. In a September campaign ad, he suggested that GOP voters should be willing to support him: “I reload guns. I’m pro-life. People have seen my record for 16 years, so it gives a comfort level to Republicans to cross over.”
On abortion, at least, Hood can make a pretty solid case for himself. Earlier this year, Mississippi became one of several states to enact a heartbeat bill, which prohibits abortion after a fetal heartbeat can be detected, usually at about six weeks’ gestation. Mississippi’s version of the law, like the other states’ versions, is currently tied up in court amid challenges from abortion-access advocates. And unlike Kentucky’s Democratic attorney general, Andy Beshear, who has refused to defend his state’s heartbeat bill against legal challenge as he bids to unseat incumbent Republican governor Matt Bevin, Hood has led the effort to argue in court that Mississippi’s law is constitutional.
“I have defended in court every single law passed protecting the unborn, including the 15-week ban and the most recent ‘heartbeat bill,’” he told Mississippi Today in May, adding that he’d continue to support those laws if elected governor.
Unsurprisingly, however, Reeves has challenged Hood’s efforts to portray himself and his record as anything other than progressive. “He’s a liberal Democrat,” Reeves said in September. “He has been for 16 years. He continues to be, and that’s okay. . . . There are some people in Mississippi that are looking for a liberal Democrat to represent them in the governor’s office. But if you are a conservative, I think that you only have one option.”
For his part, Reeves is hoping that his record standing alongside Bryant while the governor whacked away at the state income tax and unemployment will keep him in good stead with fiscal conservatives. On his campaign website and during speaking engagements, he points repeatedly to the Bryant administration’s record of job creation, cutting taxes for out-of-state corporations, and lowering the state debt.
Hood, meanwhile, claims that the tax cuts enacted by Bryant and Reeves have not in fact helped the middle-class and low-income Mississippians who most deserve help. “Since 2012, Reeves has handed out $765 million in tax giveaways, mainly to benefit large, out-of-state corporations,” Hood says. “When politicians crow about how many times they’ve cut taxes, look at your own pocketbook to see how much tax relief you’ve gotten.”
Bryant and Reeves point to the fact that they’ve achieved the lowest unemployment rate in the history of the state, but Hood says that isn’t good enough, because Mississippi still has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country. He promises that as governor he would focus on the lack of wage growth and funding for the public-education system. Unlike Reeves, he also backs Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, pointing to the fact that rural hospitals across the state have declared bankruptcy, often leaving low-income Mississippians without care. According to the Center for Mississippi Health Policy, Mississippi voters are split on support for Obamacare, but their support for Medicaid expansion has nearly doubled in recent years, rising from 37 percent in 2013 to 72 percent in 2017.
Despite these potentially potent avenues of attack, Hood still faces an uphill climb. In the last documented spending period, he raised just $2.2 million to Reeves’s $5.8 million, and as of the end of September, he had $1.1 million cash on hand to Reeves’s $3.2 million. What’s more, while the race in Mississippi has been billed as “surprisingly competitive,” of the three gubernatorial elections taking place this November, it’s still the least likely to result in an upset. In 2016, Donald Trump carried Mississippi by 18 points over Hillary Clinton, and he has maintained a consistently positive approval rating there ever since. The president is scheduled to headline a rally with Reeves on the Friday before the election, and his public support combined with the popularity of outgoing Bryant should be enough to keep the governor’s seat red.