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Could Democrats Take The Governor’s Mansion In Mississippi?

With the 2020 Democratic presidential primary underway, it’s easy to overlook elections happening in 2019. There are also not that many statewide elections this year, but one to keep your eye on is the gubernatorial race in Mississippi, which holds its primary today. Although the state is firmly Republican, Democrats could still have an outside shot of winning on Nov. 5. At the very least, uncertainty on the Republican side could muddy the Mississippi waters with a runoff election later this month.

The main event today is the Republican primary, and the front-runner’s prospects are less certain than they once were. Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves started out as the heir apparent to outgoing Republican Gov. Phil Bryant; he has raised far more money than his primary opponents while also picking up endorsements from major conservative organizations such as the National Rifle Association and Americans for Prosperity. But his approach as lieutenant governor has rubbed some Republicans the wrong way, leaving the door open for two primary opponents: former Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice Bill Waller Jr., whose father was governor in the 1970s, and state Rep. Robert Foster, who made national headlines for refusing to allow a female reporter shadow his campaign, as no other man would be present. (Waller has also said he won’t meet with women by himself.)

And although Reeves has continued to lead in the limited number of primary polls out there, the most recent one should worry him: In late July, Mason-Dixon found Reeves ahead of Waller by just 10 percentage points, 41 percent to 31 percent (with Foster at 13 percent). As a result, it’s now unclear whether Reeves can win a majority of the vote to avoid an Aug. 27 primary runoff, and some insiders speculate that Reeves could actually lose in a runoff due to an “Anyone but Tate” sentiment.

Meanwhile, the likely Democratic nominee has actually won statewide in Mississippi four times already: Attorney General Jim Hood first won office in 2003 and has been reelected three times since, winning every race by a double-digit margin. Hood does have one notable primary opponent — Hinds County District Attorney Robert Shuler Smith — but Smith has raised barely any money, although as a black candidate, he could perhaps win over the support of African Americans, who largely vote Democratic. And the one poll testing Hood against Smith way back in January 2018 did find them nearly tied. That said, Hood already has his eyes set on the general election — his first ad seems geared toward winning over conservative voters with talk about taking care of the land, reloading ammunition and going to church. Winning those voters will be important, too, if Hood stands a chance of winning in November.

And that’s because despite Hood’s winning track record as a Democrat in Mississippi, he still faces an uphill climb in the general election. The two most recent polls testing Hood against Reeves and Waller found the Democrat trailing each Republican head-to-head, though earlier this year Mason-Dixon did find Hood narrowly ahead of Tate. Remember, Mississippi is about 15 points more Republican than the country as a whole, according to FiveThirtyEight’s partisan lean metric,1 and it’s one of the most “inelastic” states in the country, meaning there aren’t a lot of swing voters to help push a Democrat over the edge. This is mainly due to extremely high levels of racially polarized voting, as most African Americans vote Democratic and most whites vote Republican.

But even if Hood wins the most votes in November, there’s a rule left over from the Jim Crow era that could still stop him from becoming governor: Mississippi requires a candidate to win a majority of the vote and a majority of the 122 districts in the state House of Representatives. This provision was codified in the state’s 1890 constitution, which still governs Mississippi today, as part of an effort to remove blacks from political power and enable white minority control of a state that had a black majority at the turn of the century. So if a candidate doesn’t win at least 62 districts while winning a majority of the vote, the House decides the election.

And considering Republicans currently have a 73-46 edge over Democrats in the House,2 they will likely retain their majority in the House in 2019. Given the stakes, a group of black Mississippians has filed a lawsuit challenging the rule and has asked a federal court to keep the state from using it in 2019. Granted, the GOP nominee may win outright and make this all for naught, but this rule has come into play before. In 1999, neither major-party candidate won a majority and each won 61 districts, so the Democratic majority in the House backed Democrat Ronnie Musgrove, who narrowly led in the popular vote.

Whatever happens today, suffice it to say that Mississippi could have its first competitive gubernatorial contest since 2003, when Musgrove lost reelection by 7 points. And the race to capture the Magnolia State governor’s mansion begins in earnest today.

Footnotes

  1. FiveThirtyEight’s partisan lean metric is the average difference between how a state votes and how the country votes overall, with 2016 presidential election results weighted at 50 percent, 2012 presidential election results weighted at 25 percent and results from elections for the state legislature weighted at 25 percent. Note that the partisan leans in this article were calculated before the 2018 elections; we haven’t calculated FiveThirtyEight partisan leans that incorporate the midterm results yet.

  2. With three vacancies.

Geoffrey Skelley is an elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

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