Even the biggest skeptic had to feel a little patriotic tug on the eve of the U.S. Senate special election runoff last November when the iconic blue and white Air Force One appeared on the horizon, landed at Tupelo Municipal Airport and taxied to a stop almost within touching distance of a large group of spectators shivering on a bone-chilling day.
President Donald Trump spoke late that afternoon at the Tupelo airport in front of thousands as he urged people to go to the polls the next day to elect fellow Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith to the U.S. Senate. Trump, Hyde-Smith and other members of the state’s Republican leadership left Tupelo and flew to Biloxi for a similar, but inside event at the Mississippi Coast Coliseum.
Earlier in the campaign, Trump held an event for Hyde-Smith in Republican vote-rich DeSoto County.
Most believe that Trump will make a similar effort in the coming weeks for Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who survived a tough primary, and is now locked in a general election battle with Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood for the open seat of governor.
Being the Republican gives Reeves a solid advantage in Mississippi. But Hood has won four straight statewide campaigns and for the last 12 years has been Mississippi’s only statewide elected Democrat. And, by the way, the lowest percentage of the vote Hood has received in winning those elections is 56 percent in the 2015 contest.
Of course, Hood won those elections before the age of Trump. Could the so-called “Trump effect” stymie Hood’s perceived momentum in the governor’s race?
Brad Chism, of Mississippi-based Chism Strategies, had to deal with the Trump effect head-on in 2018 as a senior strategist for Democrat Mike Espy, who faced Hyde-Smith in the aforementioned Senate special election runoff.
In 2018, Chism said Trump’s visit to Tupelo might have had the most positive impact for Hyde-Smith. He said that statewide Hyde-Smith had about 5 percent fewer votes in the runoff than did the combined votes of the Republican candidates in the first election. There was a runoff because no candidate garnered a majority vote in the first election.
But in the northeast Mississippi area surrounding Tupelo, Chism said that drop-off did not occur.
“But not all of that is due to Trump,” Chism said in an email. “Rural and small town whites in northeast Mississippi are more frequent voters than the state as a whole so it’s unwise to credit all that 5 percent to Trump.” Chism added Trump “had zero impact” on the Coast for the Hyde-Smith turnout in relation to the rest of the state.
Incidentally, the Coast and northeast Mississippi could be pivotal areas for the upcoming election. Hood has succeeded in part because he has outperformed other Democrats in many of the northeast Mississippi counties.
In the Senate special election, Espy ran a surprisingly competitive race against Hyde-Smith, capturing more than 46 percent of the vote statewide in the runoff. Yet, Espy garnered 20,000 fewer votes in the 10 northeastern-most counties than did Hood in 2015. And Hood performed even better in 2011.
By contrast the three heavily populated Coastal counties were Reeves’ stronghold in his primary victory this year. Much of his margin of victory came from those counties.
Hood will be trying to cut into Reeves’ strength on the Coast and Reeves will try do the same to Hood in northeast Mississippi.
Chism, who at times has done contract work for the Hood campaign, predicted that Trump, when he comes to Mississippi, will try to make the election “about immigration and national wedge issues. It helps Reeves with blue collar and rural whites.”
But Chism said Republicans who supported former Chief Justice Bill Waller Jr. in the primary against Reeves “who yearned for more substance and less partisan posturing” might be turned off.
It appeared that, based on Waller’s strong showing in the Jackson metro area and in some larger Mississippi counties, that Reeves might have problems with some college educated voters.
Whether that will carry over to the general election and how Trump will impact those dynamics remain to be seen.
Trump, based on polling, remains more popular in Mississippi than most other states. According to pollster Morning Consult, which does monthly state polls, Trump’s has a 20 percent net approval in Mississippi. Alabama and Wyoming are the only states with better net approval ratings for the president.
The Reeves campaign would not comment on a potential Trump visit and its impact, but the lieutenant governor spends significant time linking himself to the president.
Reeves said his victory in the Republican primary “showed that Mississippians want someone who will work with the president to protect our country – and our great state –from the liberal agenda.”