‘I got absolutely no help’: Dysfunction within the Mississippi Democratic Party leads to historic 2019 loss

This is the first story in a three-part series about the Mississippi Democratic Party.

Dysfunction and disorganization plagued Mississippi Democratic Party’s candidates in 2019.

By Adam Ganucheau | May 27, 2020

About a month before the November 2019 election, Felix Gines, who was running for a state House of Representatives seat, gave up hope of receiving help from the Mississippi Democratic Party.

Gines, a Democrat in ruby red Harrison County facing an incumbent Republican, was under no illusion: It’d be a tough race, but it was a winnable one. 

As president of the Biloxi City Council, he’d earned the respect of Gulf Coast power brokers on both sides of the aisle. The House seat he sought represented a small district with neighborhood pockets of Democratic voters. He had a military background — a virtual prerequisite in the Air Force base town — and his time working for the Harrison County School District earned him the endorsements of the state’s most influential public education groups.

As Republicans have surged to a supermajority in both the House and Senate in recent years, Democrats desperately needed some legislative wins in 2019. But from the day he qualified for office until the election, Gines said, he never heard from a single leader of the state Democratic Party.

When the votes were tallied on election night, he’d lost by a little more than 100 votes.

“I had the most winnable race in the state, and for whatever reason it wasn’t treated that way by the state party,” Gines told Mississippi Today. “When good candidates in winnable districts aren’t getting support, what’s even the point? I got absolutely no help from the party. None. Zero.”

“Not a day goes by that I don’t wonder what might’ve happened with just a little support,” he said.

Stories of such disappointment and dysfunction within the Mississippi Democratic Party are countless, and what happened on the night of Nov. 5, 2019, is the perfect illustration.

Democrats lost all eight statewide seats to Republicans for the first time in modern political history. They lost their majority control of the three-member Public Service Commission. They suffered a net loss in the Mississippi Legislature, undermining their ability to influence policy decisions made at the state level.

As Mississippi Democrats mourned their continued loss of political influence that night, Democrats in Southern states Louisiana and Kentucky celebrated big gubernatorial and legislative victories.

Beginning the evening following the 2019 general election, Mississippi Today interviewed more than six dozen prominent Democrats about what led to the 2019 collapse.

Those sources include current and former party leaders; current and former elected officials at the federal, state and local levels; major donors from both inside and outside the state; political operatives both from Mississippi and who were brought here to work for campaigns; engaged volunteers of the party; and average voters who follow politics closely.

None of those sources feel the party is on a positive trajectory, and nearly all of them criticized party leaders for their action during the 2019 election.

“I kept wondering, ‘Where’s my party? Where’s my party? Y’all need to help,’” Gines said. “I’m trying to carry our shared philosophy and move it forward, and I got nothing from the state party. Nothing.”

The Mississippi Democratic Party, once a powerful organization that controlled every sector of state government and politics, had no organized structure during the crucial 2019 statewide election.

Key staff positions at the party headquarters remained unfilled despite monthly financial support from the Democratic National Committee earmarked specifically for staffing. For the past four years, the party has had no executive director, who would typically be responsible for crafting political strategy and executing that vision with staff. The party has had no finance director, who would typically raise money to support that vision.

Bobby Moak, a former state representative who was elected chairman of the Democratic Party in 2016, has served as the party’s de facto strategy chief and fundraiser the past four years.

“In a nutshell, the role of the state party is supporting candidates and supporting our elected officials,” Moak told Mississippi Today. “I think we’ve done a good job. Do we have more work to do? Yes. But we’ve sure made a lot of progress in the last four years.” 

But over the past several weeks, about two dozen Democratic candidates and elected officials told Mississippi Today they received no support from the state party in 2019. The lack of staff structure contributed to that failed mission last year, several people who worked directly with party officials said.

“Any way you could define the role of the state Democratic Party, we just haven’t fulfilled it,” said Jacquie Amos, one of the party’s three paid staffers in 2019 who resigned in December after working seven years for the party. “As far as coordinating who was running, devising a plan for voter targeting, sharing that information with candidates, and being open and honest with the public about who we are as a party, none of it happened like it should have.”

Amos, data director Matt Nappe and digital director Matt Moore were the only three staffers paid throughout 2019. Each of them were paid less than $41,000 last year, according to finance reports. Their jobs were considered full-time, though not every staffer received health insurance from the party. No staffer received retirement benefits.

There were no all-staff meetings in 2019, according to several people close to the party. Instead Moak, between full-time work at his law practice, would talk with staffers individually about what needed to be done, which often led to miscommunication between staffers.

One of the duties of the state party is to coordinate Democratic activism efforts at the local level. Most of the state’s 82 counties have county party executive committees or dedicated volunteers tasked with registering, educating and regularly communicating with voters at the precinct levels.

Many of those county volunteers told Mississippi Today that coordination from the state party staff was virtually non-existent in 2019. When county volunteers would call the state party with questions, state staffers scrambled to determine who could best help. That confusion would often result in no response at all, several county party officials told Mississippi Today, leaving the local volunteers with no idea of how to conduct business.

“The main problem of the party is systemic, and it’s been worse the past four years than previously,” said David Rushing, a longtime party volunteer and chairman of the Sunflower County Democratic Party. “Nobody knows what anybody else is doing, so it’s impossible to get a coordinated effort together. Right now the leadership, for the most part, does not understand that the Democratic Party is a bottom-up organization, not a top-down.”

Another duty of the state party is to recruit a full slate of candidates in big election years. In January of 2019, the state party spent thousands of dollars on a text messaging campaign to recruit candidates for office. Mississippians across the state received text messages that asked if they’d consider running for legislative races.

Within a few hours of the texts going out, party officials began receiving calls from incumbent legislators asking why Democrats in their districts were being openly recruited to run for office against them. Moak and Nappe insisted that the program was targeted to keep those texts out of incumbents’ districts, but several high-profile Democratic incumbents told Mississippi Today that did not happen.

Even without a finance director, Moak raised more money in 2019 than any party leader had in recent years, bringing in about $400,000, according to finance reports. About $140,000 of that total came directly from the Democratic National Committee and was earmarked specifically for payroll. At least $40,000 of the total came from party fees that every Democratic elected official and candidate at the state level was required to pay.

“You know, (fundraising) has always been an issue,” Moak said. “I think our Republican friends have a much easier avenue to go down because they’ve got U.S. senators and governors. People who contribute to them also contribute to the party when asked. We’ve been getting a lot of financial support from the DNC, but we have to show folks who are willing to put some money into Mississippi that we have a viable program that can match up with any other state. I think we’re doing that.”

In 2018, the party moved into an office building just east of downtown Jackson — a point Moak and other Democrats regularly boast. But most days during the 2019 election year, Amos was the only staffer at the office. Moak spent most days in Bogue Chitto, where his home and law practice are. Nappe, the party’s data director, lives in Starkville. Moore, the party’s digital director, lives in Gulfport.

Just eight days before the November election, a party volunteer from Jackson visited the office to pick up yard signs. After no one answered his knocking at the door, he noticed a sign on the door that instructed him to call an office neighbor. The neighbor let the volunteer into the office, which was completely empty.

“You know, having an office is a good thing. It can serve as a hub, and it can be a place that volunteers are happy to visit,” Amos said. “But what good does it do if no one is there? If I wasn’t there, nobody was there. That was a big problem.”

One of the recurring line items on the party’s 2019 finance report is a monthly “utilities” charge to the J. Walter Michel Agency in Jackson. That company is owned by Henry Michel, the brother of longtime Republican state senator Walter Michel. The company manages the property for the Mississippi Democratic Party’s building.

When asked why the family company of a Republican state senator was paid $3,500 by the Mississippi Democratic Party in 2019, Moak replied: “I’m not the owner of the building. I don’t know the answer to that question.”

In early October 2019, about a month before Election Day, DNC Chairman Tom Perez had to settle an argument between Moak and top campaign officials for Jim Hood, the state’s top Democrat and nominee for governor, sources familiar with the conversation told Mississippi Today.

The DNC wanted to send $100,000 to the Mississippi Democratic Party for field operation — door knocking, leafleting, phone banking — in predominantly black counties. The Hood campaign, among the Democratic campaigns that would benefit from the operation, recommended two veteran political operatives who had experience in those counties.

The DNC transferred the money to the state Democratic Party, which was then expected to pay the consultants.

But there was a problem: Moak had other ideas of how to spend the money and held up the field operation. Moak’s proudest achievement as chairman the past four years, he says, is the development of a data program that features email, phone and text message lists of likely Democratic voters.

Moak often cites the program’s success in conversations with Democrats, and he says the program is why the Democratic National Committee continues to send checks.

“During the Mike Espy (U.S. Senate) race in 2018, we made 4.5 million telephone, direct mail or email contacts,” Moak said of the program. “We built a telephone system from 0 to 1.8 million. Email addresses, we don’t probably have as many as I’d like, but it’s somewhere between 40,000 and 50,000. Social media followers, we now have about the same as Republicans now. The DNC continues to support us for that data.”

But on the phone call, Perez told Moak the DNC money should be spent on the field operation and not on the state party’s data system. Moak privately fumed, sources said, but eventually sent $80,000 to the consultants.

A majority of the money the party has raised in the past four years has been spent on building this data system. But several seasoned Democratic political operatives told Mississippi Today that investment is not as effective in engaging and persuading voters as an investment in a true, person-to-person ground game.

For months, Democratic Party Executive Committee members have informed party leadership of complaints they’ve received across the state about the barrage of text messages and phone calls from the party during election years.

“I’m a data guy, a numbers guy. It’s how I make my living,” said Charles Taylor, a Jackson-based political consultant who works high profile statewide races. “I’ve been able to sit at the intersection of community organizing and political data management. What that perspective has taught me is that while data is real and necessary, it’s not sufficient. You need great data because it can point you in the right direction as to who to target, but it doesn’t speak to how to target them.”

Taylor continued: “What the data allows you to do is say who you want to touch, but the physical touch is the most important part. A text message does not move someone the same way that door knocking does, especially in Mississippi. Sending out a text message as a campaign strategy is like putting icing on a cake with no cake.”

Moak told Mississippi Today that the data system is just the first step in voter outreach strategy: If you identify where voters are and log that information, Moak said, you can later reach them in a ground game. But to date, no efforts have been made by the party to develop a ground game.

Several 2019 Democratic candidates and incumbents told Mississippi Today they were never offered a chance to utilize the data that the party had been collecting. This disconnect, the candidates and elected officials said, is affecting the outcomes of elections.

“When I ran for my legislative seat in 2015, I got limited and inaccurate data from the party,” said former state Rep. Jay Hughes, who ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor in 2019. “So when I ran for lieutenant governor, I made the decision that the only way I could trust the numbers and contacts was to develop them from scratch with my own team. I didn’t even bother asking the party for help because I knew I wouldn’t get what I needed.”

And as candidates continue to be left without any support from the state party, morale continues to tank, several Democrats told Mississippi Today.

“I never got a thing from the state party. We’ve always been completely on our own,” said Debbie Dawkins, a four-term state senator who lost in the August 2019 Democratic primary and whose seat was flipped by Republicans in November. “There’s not a lot of hope for the party in my mind. Some say 2019 was rock bottom, but I think it can get worse.”

Editor’s note: Read part two and part three of this series on the Mississippi Democratic Party.

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Adam Ganucheau, as Mississippi Today's editor-in-chief, oversees the newsroom and works with the editorial team to fulfill our mission of producing high-quality journalism in the public interest. Adam has covered politics and state government for Mississippi Today since February 2016. A native of Hazlehurst, Adam has worked as a staff reporter for AL.com, The Birmingham News and The Clarion-Ledger and his work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Adam earned his bachelor’s in journalism from the University of Mississippi.