A Mississippi Democrat Looks to Escape the National Party Shadow

Jim Hood is in his fourth term as state attorney general but is now running for governor.

Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood (left)
AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis
March 18, 2019, 8 p.m.

Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood has never met House Speaker Nancy Pelosi or Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, but their names will continue to feature heavily in attacks against the Magnolia State Democrat in his bid for governor this year.

Hood’s challenge is to get an electorate that voted overwhelmingly for President Trump, in a state Gallup polling found to be the most conservative in the country, to look beyond party ID in a top-of-the-ticket race.

That sounds like a herculean task in a polarized environment, particularly in the Deep South, but Democrats are optimistic Hood can break the party’s losing streak for the state’s top job. He has won statewide four times in a row since he was first elected attorney general in 2003, and he’s no longer the only statewide-elected Democrat in the region, having been joined in recent years by Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards and Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama.

“Jim’s values reflect values in Mississippi,” said former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, who is the last Democrat to lead the state after being elected to one term in 1999. “He’s much more conservative than what you would find in a national Democrat.”

Hood is expected to face Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, though both first must defeat primary opponents. Reeves, who has secured the endorsement of outgoing Gov. Phil Bryant, is well-connected within the state’s GOP establishment.

“This race is going to be about whether people want Mississippi to stay on the track that it’s on with conservative leadership,” Reeves spokesman Parker Briden said, “or if they want to hand the keys over to the party of Pelosi, Schumer, Elizabeth Warren, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts stumped in Mississippi on Monday ahead of a prime-time town hall in Jackson hosted by CNN. In anticipation of her visit, the state Republican party launched a digital ad Friday connecting Hood, Warren, and other national Democrats. The 30-second spot, which claims Hood “stands with them, not us,” was set to play on various social platforms throughout Warren's visit.

Nicole Webb, the state GOP’s communications director, said the ad is meant to highlight how “their shared Democratic Party embraces an increasingly far left platform and leadership.”

Hood’s campaign is focusing on issues like improving infrastructure and access to rural hospitals—topics that “have nothing to do with the issues that they’re trying to link us to,” Hood senior adviser Michael Rejebian said.

“It’s just humorous to us because they used these tactics in previous election cycles and they had no impact,” he said.

Reeves is betting Hood’s past success had more to do with voters’ perception of the attorney general office as nonpartisan than Hood’s appeal to Republicans. Reeves and his team expect the race for governor will return voters to party lines.

“When you’re governor, they’re counting on you to lead on issues that are more near and dear to their hearts, like pro-life issues, issues with education, and job creation,” Briden said. “And overwhelmingly Republicans do not trust his party to do that.”

While Hood’s team acknowledges it won’t be a cakewalk, Rejebian said the four-term attorney general’s electoral track record “defies political logic.”

Hood will have to hustle to catch up to Reeves’s $7 million war chest. Hood closed the last fundraising cycle with around $1 million on hand.

Both candidates have trekked to Washington for fundraisers since the most recent filing deadline. With few Democratic donors in the state, Hood especially must make his case to outside donors, partnering with allies at the Democratic Governors Association and other fundraising groups.

“Reeves has an overwhelming advantage in terms of fundraising,” Musgrove acknowledged. “But now that he has a credible opponent in the primary, his financial position will not be as great as it would have been.”

Bill Waller Jr., a former state Supreme Court chief justice and son of a former Democratic governor, joined the Republican primary on March 1 and has argued that Republicans can more easily rally around him in a general election. Waller’s slightly more moderate platform is similar to Hood’s, especially when it comes to health care. Reeves is staunchly against proposals such as expanding Medicaid.

“There are a lot more people who appreciate that he’s not afraid to say no and he’s not afraid to hold the line on raising taxes or expanding Obamacare,” Briden said. “For every angry insider, there is someone who appreciates him standing firm.”

Reeves’s team is keeping its sights trained on Hood, taking every opportunity to paint him as a liberal extremist.

Waller so far has avoided echoing Reeves’s nationalized messaging against Hood, and some Republicans view it as a flawed tactic.

"Governor’s races are not federal races—they turn on state issues," said a Mississippi Republican strategist familiar with the race. "You can’t scare people by Nancy Pelosi-ing Jim Hood to death. People just aren’t going to believe that."

Hood’s path to the general election was complicated when Robert Shuler Smith, the Hinds County district attorney, joined the Democratic primary in late February. The two have a contentious history: Hood has unsuccessfully tried to prosecute Smith on three separate occasions.

A large part of Hood’s voter base is the state’s African-American population. Smith, who would be the state’s first African-American governor if elected, told Y’all Politics he believes the attempts to prosecute him by the attorney general’s office were “racially and politically motivated.”

Musgrove said “any opponent is always a factor” in a race this competitive, but he does “not see that challenge in the same way that Bill Waller presents a challenge to Tate Reeves.”

A Hood victory could hinge on his ability to attract more voters than the average Democrat in the northern part of the state, which went heavily for Trump in 2016. His team expects his three strongest areas to be his hometown of Houston, which is located in the north; Hinds County, which includes Jackson; and the Delta region.

“If you scratch the surface of a lot of Republican voters in Mississippi,” said the Republican strategist familiar with the race, “you’re going to find a lot of voters who were Democrats the day before yesterday, particularly in the Northeast.”

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