In deep-red Mississippi, Democrats run from anti-Trump rhetoric ahead of election

BILOXI, Miss. -- As Democrats in Washington work feverishly to impeach President Trump, at least one prominent Southern Democrat, Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood, is running away from that effort in a bid to become his state’s next governor.

Voters in this deep-red state will decide on Tuesday whether to elect Hood or his Republican opponent, incumbent Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, to serve as their next governor. The race is unusually tight, despite Mississippi’s status as a Republican stronghold. Observers attribute the strength of Hood’s candidacy, in part, to his willingness to eschew his party’s national brand of politics, including its anti-Trumpism.

“Jim Hood is running on the Democratic ticket, but he has always had his brand of politics,” said Nathan Shrader, a political science professor and director of American studies at Jackson’s Millsaps College. “It's like a shopper at the grocery store. It's not that they're going to buy ketchup, they're buying Heinz. They're not going to buy a car, they're going to buy a Nissan. So they're not necessarily buying a Democrat. It's Jim Hood they are buying. He is his own brand of Democrat.”

Observers attribute the strength of Hood’s candidacy, in part, to his willingness to eschew his party’s national brand of politics, including its anti-Trumpism.

Observers attribute the strength of Hood’s candidacy, in part, to his willingness to eschew his party’s national brand of politics, including its anti-Trumpism. (Elina Shirazi)

Hood has aggressively straddled the political fence, refusing to say whether he supports efforts to impeach Trump. Asked on a local talk radio station whether he would ever consider voting for the president, Hood called it a “trick question.”

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The strategy has paid dividends: October polling by Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy showed Reeves holding just a slight edge, leading Hood among registered voters by 46 percent to 43 percent, with 9 percent still undecided.

October polling by Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy showed Reeves holding just a slight edge, leading Hood among registered voters.

October polling by Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy showed Reeves holding just a slight edge, leading Hood among registered voters. (Elina Shirazi)

Despite running a campaign that many national Democrats might view as “moderate,” Hood represents a bright spot for his party in a region where its prospects are generally dim. Trump won the state by nearly 18 percentage points in 2016, while state Republicans currently hold the governor’s mansion, both legislative chambers and all but one statewide office.

Trump won the state by nearly 18 percentage points in 2016, while state Republicans presently hold the governor’s mansion, both legislative chambers and all but one statewide office. 

Trump won the state by nearly 18 percentage points in 2016, while state Republicans presently hold the governor’s mansion, both legislative chambers and all but one statewide office.  (Elina Shirazi)

Hood, who is in his fourth term as state attorney general, marks the only exception.

“Hood’s messaging is personally appealing to me because I feel that it speaks more to the average Mississippian. You know, he shows that he is not your average Washington Democrat. … The reason this race is garnering attention is because Republicans see that a governor can win on a statewide level in Mississippi,” said Evan Jones, a 21-year-old Democratic voter and student at Millsaps College.

Trump and Vice President Pence have spent time stumping in the state, encouraging voters to get out and vote. “I am here for one reason and one reason only. America needs Tate Reeves to be the next governor of Mississippi! Tate Reeves you all know, he is Mississippi … a strong conservative who lives what he believes," Pence said Monday during a rally in Biloxi.

Democratic nominee for governor, Attorney General Jim Hood, addresses business leaders at the Mississippi Economic Council's annual "Hobnob Mississippi," in Jackson, Miss., Thursday. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Democratic nominee for governor, Attorney General Jim Hood, addresses business leaders at the Mississippi Economic Council's annual "Hobnob Mississippi," in Jackson, Miss., Thursday. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

He added: "Tate Reeves ... you have a proven Republican. You sure can't say that about his opponent. Jim Hood supported Hillary Clinton in 2016."

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves addresses business leaders in Jackson, Miss., last week. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves addresses business leaders in Jackson, Miss., last week. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Despite the competitive campaign, analysts say Reeves is still the most likely to emerge as the victor on Tuesday.

“I think the lieutenant governor will be elected governor. He has got more visible support. He is more in line policy-wise and values-wise with Mississippi voters,” said George Pickett, a 74-year-old Republican voter who attends the same church as Reeves in Jackson.

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The one thing that could produce a surprise on Tuesday, Shrader suggested, is a change in projected voter turnout. “If this race is as close as it seems, this could be decided by the ground game and the quality of the [get out the vote] operations that they are doing,” he said. “It gets back to old-school politics, [those] are going to determine the winner here, not television and Facebook ads."