The still unofficial results from the Nov. 5 gubernatorial election look strikingly similar to last year’s United States Senate special election runoff between Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith and Democrat Mike Espy.
In that election, 907,588 votes were cast with Hyde-Smith winning 53.6 percent and Espy capturing 46.4 percent. On Tuesday, 862,609 votes were cast with Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves receiving 52.1 percent and Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood winning 46.6 percent. Two third party candidates received the rest. It is likely in the coming days that the Nov. 5 vote total will increase slightly as contested ballots are counted and added to the tally.
Digging deeper by looking at black majority areas that are Democratic strongholds, there are other similarities to the 2018 special election. In Hinds, the state’s largest county, Espy received 77 percent of the total or 61,115 votes while in the governor’s election Hood grabbed 55,403 or 77.5 percent. In another black majority area or Democratic stronghold, the Delta, results are similar. In Washington County, for example, the heart of the Delta, Espy received about 730 more votes than Hood.
In other words, it appears Hood, a white Democrat from northeast Mississippi, performed at about the same levels among African American voters who went to the polls as did Espy, a historic figure as the first black Mississippian elected to the U.S. House since the 1800s.
A key difference, though, is that in the U.S. Senate special election black voters made up about 35 percent of the total electorate compared to about 31 percent in the governor’s election, according to a preliminary analysis done by Mississippi pollster Brad Chism.
Hood did a little better than Espy among white voters. Hood, Mississippi’s only statewide elected Democrat, had won four elections by at least comfortable margins and sometimes landslides by winning support from black Mississippians who tend to vote Democratic and garnering more white voters, who tend to vote Republican, than other candidates.
At the core of that crossover appeal was Hood’s home area of northeast Mississippi – what he fondly calls the hills. In 2015, Hood won Union County in the hills by a 3,907 to 3,709 margin. This past Tuesday he lost the county by a 5,934 to 2,461 margin. In 2015, he won Alcorn County by a 5,273 to 5,136 margin while Tuesday he lost the county by a staggering 8,596 (75.5 percent) for Reeves to 2,633 (23.1 percent) for Hood. Other counties, such as Itawamba and Prentiss, were similar.
On Tuesday, Hood did only marginally better than Espy in northeast Mississippi.
Hood needed to perform strongly in northeast Mississippi to offset Reeves’ strong support along the populous Gulf Coast and in DeSoto County – a Memphis suburb. Hood did perform better in the Jackson suburbs – and to a lesser extent other suburban areas – than other Democrats have in recent elections. He became the first Democratic gubernatorial nominee since 1987 to win Madison County, home of an affluent Jackson suburb.
Hood did not lose because he did not get enough African American voters. He lost because he did not win the white voters he had in the past. If black voters had been the same margin of the electorate as they were in the Espy election, he most likely still would have lost.
Black and white Mississippians often eat together, socialize together, work together and go to school together, but they normally vote differently.
The reasons Hood was not able to win his last election most likely are varied. While Hood has faced well-funded opponents in the past, he has never been opposed by a candidate who spent about $11 million and outspent him more than 2 to 1 to label him as a tax and spend liberal beholden to national Democrats.
“It was just a bad environment” for a Democrat, a Hood campaign staffer said, looking as if he might need to go into concussion protocol.
It could be argued that the environment was created by President Donald Trump, who held a combustible rally in Tupelo (northeast Mississippi) only days before the election. It was obvious that impeachment was on the mind of the Trump voters and the president argued a vote for Hood was a vote for impeachment. Reeves also worked to tie Hood to the congressional Democrats’ impeachment efforts. And most likely, Reeves would have won regardless of the president’s visit to Tupelo.
Democrats are left wondering if Jim Hood cannot win the state’s top office, then who can. There does not seem to be anyone on the horizon. Nowadays Mississippi is Republican on both the state and national level and moving quickly in that direction on the local level.
In 2008, a whopping 554,662 Mississippians voted for Barack Obama. He still lost by 13 percent.
Moving forward, finding the right Democrat to win statewide in Mississippi will be a herculean feat.
This column was produced by Mississippi Today, a nonprofit news organization that covers state government, public policy, politics and culture.
BOBBY HARRISON is Mississippi Today’s senior Capitol reporter.