Democratic leader Tom Perez: ‘We’re going to keep fighting in Mississippi because I know we can win’

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Gage Skidmore, Flickr

Tom Perez, chair of the National Democratic Committee

ATLANTA — After two years of Democratic defeats in Mississippi, Tom Perez, the Democratic National Committee chairman, said the national party will “redouble” its Mississippi investment in the 2020 cycle.

Earlier this month, Attorney General Jim Hood — broadly considered the Democratic Party’s best shot at the Mississippi governorship since 2003 — lost by five and a half points to Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves. Hood’s loss came a year after an eight point loss by former Democratic congressman Mike Espy to Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith in a 2018 special U.S. Senate election.

“We’re in for the long haul in Mississippi,” Perez told Mississippi Today following the Democratic presidential debate in Atlanta on Wednesday night. “We invested at the DNC last year in Mississippi for Mike Espy. We didn’t make it to the mountaintop, so what did we do? We redoubled our investment this year. We didn’t quite make it to the mountaintop with Jim Hood. You know what we’re going to do next year? We’re going to keep investing because I think what we have to do is think long term. We have to make sure that every single year, we’re investing, we’re building relationships, we’re getting that much closer to the mountaintop.”

Mississippi, where the electorate is highly polarized along racial lines, has the highest percentage of African Americans of any state in the nation. Black voters make up about 70 percent of the Democratic primary electorate, Democratic operatives say, and the party’s top candidates in Mississippi often target that base of support.

Historically, national Democrats have eschewed investing in the party’s statewide candidates who often face better-financed Republicans in a state where white conservatives make a large portion of the electorate.

Hood received criticism in the days following his loss for not focusing enough of his spending and messaging on black voter outreach.

Espy, who came closer than any Democrat since the 1980s to winning a U.S. Senate seat in Mississippi, announced earlier this month would again contest Hyde-Smith’s seat in 2020. If elected, Espy would become the first African American elected in a statewide election by popular vote in the state’s history. 

Race played a central role in the 2018 Senate race after Hyde-Smith said during separate campaign stops that she would be willing to attend a public hanging and joked about voter suppression. Josh Randle, a potential Republican primary challenger to Hyde-Smith, called into question Hyde-Smith’s reputation following those comments, saying in early November: “Mississippi deserves better.”

“I will be the candidate to bring people together, not tear them apart,” Espy told Mississippi Today earlier this month.

During the Democratic debate on Wednesday night — standing before high-profile African American leaders like Georgia Congressman John Lewis, former Georgia Democratic nominee for governor Stacey Abrams, NAACP President Derrick Johnson and Democratic Party of Georgia Chairwoman Nikema Williams — several presidential candidates discussed the importance of representing the interests of African Americans.

In the interview following the debate on Wednesday, Perez likened Mississippi’s future prospects to Georgia’s from just two years ago, when Democrats built on Jon Ossoff’s close 2017 congressional special election loss to ultimately flip the seat with Lucy McBath in 2018.

“We’re going to keep fighting in Mississippi because I know we can win,” Perez said. “(Hood) lost by only five and a half points. Jim Hood is a great man. Mike Espy is a great person, as well. So we’re going to keep investing. The more you invest and the more you think long term, that is how you win.”