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Mississippi’s governors race, explained. Zac Freeland/Vox

Mississippi’s surprisingly close race for governor, explained

Mississippi is controlled by Republicans. Its next governor might be a Democrat.

On November 5, Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood has a good shot at becoming the state’s first Democratic governor in 16 years — as long as a Jim Crow-era electoral system doesn’t get in his way.

Neither Hood nor his Republican opponent, current Mississippi Lieutenant Governor Tate Reeves, has ever lost a statewide election — Hood was first elected as Mississippi’s attorney general in 2003; in that same election, Reeves became the state’s treasurer.

The race is expected to be very, very close. Early polls showed Hood with a slight advantage, one that fell from 6 percentage points last December to 2 percentage points in February. The latest Mason-Dixon poll, taken by phone in October, found Reeves ahead by 3 percentage points. In late September, the Cook Political Report marked the race as leaning Republican.

But the race has always been an uphill battle for Hood, for a few reasons. One is a basic political reality: Mississippi tends to be fairly Republican. The state is currently controlled by Republicans, including Reeves, and President Donald Trump won the state by more than 17 percentage points in 2016.

Hood’s greatest challenge, however, is institutional: a Jim Crow era constitution designed to, in the words of one of Mississippi’s Reconstruction era governors, “eliminate the n****r from politics.”

Hood isn’t black — both candidates are middle-aged white men — but the laws that were put in place are meant to put a high bar for winning statewide office.

As Vox’s Ian Millhiser has explained, that constitution says that to win statewide office in Mississippi, a candidate must both win the popular vote and the majority of the state’s House of Representative districts. If no candidate wins both, the state’s House of Representatives chooses who will fill the role. A lawsuit has been filed challenging that system, but a ruling on it isn’t expected until after the 2019 election.

The stakes of the race are quite high, particularly with respect to Medicaid. Hood is for enacting a Medicaid expansion that would — by his campaign’s estimate — lead to almost 100,000 Mississippians gaining insurance. Reeves, however, has said he staunchly opposes any expansion “on philosophical grounds.”

Education, economic growth, and infrastructure have also been fiercely debated topics, but both candidates have worked to nationalize the race. Reeves claims, “The Democrats are out-of-control and Jim Hood is completely with them.” Hood, on the other hand, has rejected any ties to progressives in DC, saying, “The crazies on both extremes of our parties have been driving the agenda, and people are sick of it.”

The specter of these politicians — particularly Trump — looms large, and Dallas Breen, executive director of the Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University believes the national attention the race has received in recent weeks could be behind the polling shift in Reeve’s favor, especially “the attention that the president is giving to the state.”

But while the race currently favors Reeves by the slimmest of margins, Hood is as strong a challenger as the Democrats have put up in nearly a generation. So the race really could go either way. Vox is covering the results live, here.

Hood is a strong candidate because he seems a lot like a Republican

Tate Reeves claims Jim Hood is “a liberal Democrat, he has been for 16 years, he continues to be.”

While it is true Hood’s tenure as attorney general has been marked by work that has been celebrated by liberals, like the reopening of civil rights cases and suing large corporations, it’s quite a stretch to call him a “liberal Democrat.”

Attorney General Jim Hood during his 2005 prosecution of KKK member Edgar Ray Killen for the 1964 murders of three civil rights activists.
Rogelio Solis/Getty Images

Over the course of his career, the attorney general has leaned heavily into his conservative image — he makes his faith known, citing the Bible; talks about his guns; and has defended both his state’s abortion law that bans the procedure as early as six weeks into a pregnancy, and its ban on adoption by members of the LGBTQ community.

“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,” he said in September.

Many Republicans did indeed cross over to vote for him in previous elections. Seven out of eight statewide officials are Republicans in Mississippi — the only one who is not is Jim Hood, which has led to his nickname as the “last Democrat in Dixie.”

During the 2015 attorney general’s race, Hood’s opponent Mike Hurst told Reuters, “A lot of folks are unaware that he is a Democrat. ... He has done a great job, I think personally, of fooling the Mississippi voters into thinking that he is conservative.”

Positioning himself as a conservative has been a successful strategy for Hood, but it is also one that has left some of his fellow Democrats out in the cold, particularly during this election cycle.

Mississippian Anna McInarnay, who describes herself as a liberal, lamented to the Wall Street Journal, “Our choices are between a conservative and a somewhat conservative.”

Reeves, of course, hopes that most people don’t share McInarnay’s view. To further the case for a Gov. Reeves, he has endeavored to convince voters that he is the race’s only true conservative when it comes to the economy.

Reeves sometimes refers to himself as Mississippi’s “fiscal watchdog,” and he has used his tenure as lieutenant governor to push for lower taxes.

Reeves — and all Mississippi lieutenant governors — are able to directly influence policy through powers granted in lawsuits brought in the late 1980s and early 1990s that gave lieutenant governors not just the power to preside over the Senate as Mississippi’s constitution outlines, but to appoint committee chairs and members and to assign bills to committees for review.

Reeves has used that power, appointing committee chairs and ushering in a law that fulfilled a campaign promise to lower taxes, 2016’s Taxpayer Pay Raise Act.

Ahead of that bill’s passage, Reeves argued, “We need to put tax policy in place that’s going to encourage and incentivize long-term job growth.”

In the gubernatorial campaign, he has used it to tie himself to President Trump, tweeting, “I believe in low taxes. I agree with Donald Trump that tax cuts are good for the economy.”

Critics of the bill — as well as the roughly 50 other tax cuts that have been rolled out under Reeves’ tenure — argue that like the president’s signature tax cut, the Mississippi cuts benefit businesses more than citizens and that a loss of revenue has put strain on the state’s finances.

Reeves told Mississippi Today “all of these cuts generate more economic activity in Mississippi. More economic activity leads to better jobs, more taxpayers, and ultimately, more revenue collected.”

This where Reeves and Hood’s conservatism diverges, to some degree. Hood also wants to cut taxes, but wants to do so for consumer goods, most notably groceries. Reeves, on the other hand, believes lowering taxes that affect businesses is more useful.

What clearly makes Hood a Democrat, however, is Medicaid.

The fate of a Mississippi Medicaid expansion is in voters’ hands

Mississippi is one of the 14 states that has refused to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. Those states’ decision to reject the expansion has had very real consequences, as Vox’s Matthew Yglesias has written:

A recent study from four researchers — University of Michigan economist Sarah Miller; University of California, Los Angeles public health scholar Laura Wherry; National Institutes of Health’s Sean Altekruse; and Norman Johnson with the US Census Bureau — estimates that failure to expand Medicaid leads to about 15,600 extra deaths per year just among people ages 55-64.

But Republican leaders in Mississippi have argued that the cost sharing proposed under Obamacare is too risky to accept.

Essentially, the ACA asks states that expand Medicaid (but that didn’t do so before 2016) to pay a percentage of the costs created by that expansion. Any state that joins in 2020 or after will be asked to pay 10 percent; the federal government is meant to pay the other 90 percent.

But state lawmakers opposed to that agreement in Mississippi and elsewhere have argued the federal government may change its mind, and if it starts paying less, states will be left with huge health care costs they can ill afford. (Republicans at the federal level have tried to do just that, so the fear isn’t completely without merit.)

And Reeves has little interest in changing that position, as he has made very clear.

“I am opposed to Obamacare expansion in Mississippi. I am opposed to Obamacare expansion in Mississippi. I am opposed to Obamacare expansion in Mississippi,” he said during a January luncheon.

In June, Reeves told the Clarion Ledger, “I don’t believe the expansion is nearly as good a financial deal as some would make it out to be.”

And he has summed up his position on Medicaid and similar programs as “Mississippians believe the way to a better future is not through handouts or bailouts but through hard work and more freedom.”

Hood takes the opposing view, and has framed rejecting the expansion as saying “no” to free money. “We shouldn’t leave hundreds of millions of federal dollars on the table,” he said during his announcement speech.

On his campaign site, Hood claims, “In Mississippi, around 300,000 adults would benefit from reforming Medicaid—nearly 100,000 of those individuals live in poverty without health insurance.”

Mississippians wait in line for medical care at a free clinic for the uninsured in Biloxi, Mississippi in 2013.
Amanda McCoy/Biloxi Sun Herald/Tribune News Service/Getty Images

He has often mentioned an emergency room that closed in Houston, Mississippi, and has acknowledged that a number of hospitals, particularly those in rural parts of the state are facing difficult times — Reeves’s primary opponent, former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Bill Waller, put the number in danger of closing at 31. Expanding Medicaid, Hood said, would “keep those hospitals open, because those are the best paying jobs in most rural communities like mine.”

Hood has not specifically outlined a plan for paying for the expansion, which a 2015 Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning study found would cost the state between $100 and $150 million per year (should the federal funding commitment remain at 90 percent). He has, however, said he has positive feelings about a plan drafted by a group of Mississippi hospitals that suggests paying for the expansion through hospital and patient fees.

If Reeves becomes governor there will be no Medicaid expansion. But it isn’t clear whether there would be one under a Hood administration, either.

He would try, but given that the House and Senate are both Republican controlled (and they are expected to remain so following the election), Breen told Vox an expansion would be a “tough sell.”

It wouldn’t necessarily be a nonstarter, however: “I would think there would at least be discussion on it,” Breen said. “I think you’d have a very deliberate process.”

Who is going to win?

Voters clearly like both Hood and Reeves — they’ve each been elected, often by large margins, four times. They are known quantities. The question is which voters like better for governor, and it’s a difficult question to answer.

“If it’s about policy, Jim’s in trouble. If it’s about personality, Tate’s in trouble,” a Republican strategist told the Cook Political Report.

The race has been about policy — particularly Medicaid — and it has been about personality, but it has also been about avoiding a situation in which the House of Representatives decides the governor. Hood has reason to be concerned about that happening because the House is full of Republicans; Reeves because most of those lawmakers have said they’ll vote as their district did.

Like other Democratic victories in the South, black voters will an important element of this effort. The state is 38 percent black, so Hood would obviously need a coalition that spans ethnicity to win, because the support of black voters will only go so far. But those voters become even more of a factor when considering the 122 House districts in Mississippi.

Breen told Vox 39 of those districts are majority minority. All of those districts, and five others, are traditionally Democratic strongholds. Hood would need every one, but winning all of those would bring him to 44 districts. He needs at least 62, a difficult feat, but perhaps doable if he is able to repeat the sorts of performances he has put on during past elections.

And those Republican districts are not necessarily locks for Reeves, either, according to Breen, who said there are still a fair number of undecided voters and Republicans who still wish former Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice Bill Waller had defeated Reeves in the GOP gubernatorial runoff. Who those Waller supporters choose to vote for could have a major impact on the election.

Less than a week out from voting, Breen said, “There’s a population of people trying to decide what the next step is for them.”

Overall, Reeves has leaned into Donald Trump’s popularity, telling supporters at a rally hosted by Donald Trump Jr., “We’re gonna run this state like Donald J. Trump is running America.” Donald Jr. promised Reeves “will fight for the MAGA agenda,” and both President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence will have stumped for Reeves in person by election day.

Trump looms behind Reeves as a crowd waving Trump Pence 2020 signs cheers.
Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves speaks at a rally Trump held in Tupelo, Mississippi, to support him.
Brandon Dill/Getty Images

Breen said all this presidential attention has energized Democrats as well: “Coming down for a rally in north Mississippi at the end of the week, I think that’s getting some people who may not have gone to the polls to show some interest — or some excitement — towards going to the polls, in both directions.”

Voters have also been asked to contend with a number of scandals brought up by each side. Both Reeves and Hood have faced questions about the use of blackface at their college fraternities. No pictures exist of either man directly partaking in the racist ritual, and Hood told voters at a town hall he’d never wear blackface because, “When I go hunting, I don’t even like to wear a mask.”

There have also been accusations of abuse of power — Hood claiming Reeves used his office to try to get a road built directly from his subdevelopment to a shopping center; Reeves claiming Hood wasted taxpayer money investigating the effort.

None of these scandals have affected the race much, according to Breen. Voters, he said, are focused more on Medicaid, infrastructure, and education. Both sides are accusing the other of wrongdoing only as a desperate measure, he said, because this has not been “an easy election for one side or the other.”

“This one has a unique feel to it,” Breen said. “I think it’s going to be close.”

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