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Top strategists say Mississippi Democratic Party’s focus on white moderates can’t win elections. Will anything change?
A political identity crisis within the Mississippi Democratic Party is harming candidates up and down ticket.
This is the second story in a three-part series about the Mississippi Democratic Party.
By Adam Ganucheau | May 28, 2020
Michael Rejebian will be the first one to tell you that the political strategy he carried out for Jim Hood, the Democratic nominee for governor in 2019, was a failure.
The campaign, which had been heralded as the Democratic Party’s best shot at the Governor’s Mansion in at least 16 years, focused most of its resources on targeting independent white voters, particularly in northeast Mississippi. Hood, a pro-life and gun-toting moderate, had won four attorney general races in large part by appealing to those voters.
But that focus drew criticism from Democratic voices several times during the 2019 campaign who said Hood should have been doing more to appeal to the party’s black, more progressive base. Late shifts in strategy occurred before the election, but those moves proved futile.
On Election Day, Hood lost all but two counties in northeast Mississippi, and he ran below targets in majority-black Democratic strongholds. He lost to Republican Tate Reeves by about five points.
“Continuing to focus on moderate white voters as a means to secure future electoral success assumes that there are enough moderate white voters to make that happen,” Rejebian, Hood’s campaign manager, told Mississippi Today this week. “And, more important, it discounts the potential future strength of African American voters.”
“The Democratic Party in Mississippi has reached its crossroad,” Rejebian said, “and now it’s going to have to make some tough decisions if it’s to even have a future.”
Bobby Moak, the current chairman of the Mississippi Democratic Party, disagrees. In an interview this week, Moak touted statistical gains made in 2019 with white moderate voters in suburban and university counties, and he said the party should double down on its efforts to attract white moderates.
“We see a lot of independents who want to come back,” Moak told Mississippi Today this week. “They’re coming back as you saw in the post-election analysis precinct polling in 2019. In different areas of the state, you saw 8-15 percent of voters come back to the party who had not historically been there in the last eight or 12 years.”
Moak continued: “We’ve brought back independents into the fold, we’ve brought back white voters. There’s one thing I believe in, and that’s that we will not stand if we stand alone. We have to have all of us: blacks and white and every mix of moderate or far left or far right Democrats. You have to have all of those folks coming in.”
Rejebian and Moak’s clashing of ideals illustrates a political identity crisis within the Mississippi Democratic Party.
As national Democrats struggle over whether certain progressive messages are too far left for average Democratic voters, Mississippi Democrats are struggling over whether certain conservative messages are too far right for average Democratic voters.
Political moderates like Moak have maintained the most power within the state party despite the fact that most moderate voters have left the party in recent years. Meanwhile, more progressive candidates and voters, who make up a majority of the party’s base, are on a limb. This unaddressed tension has left the party with no clear platform, and Democratic voters are receiving mixed messages from their candidates.
And every Mississippi Democrat, regardless of political bent, is losing the messaging battle versus the top-down Republican Party, which has implemented a clear platform and featured politicians who consistently fall in line with the values of their party leaders.
“What 2019 showed us is that if Mississippi voters are going to respond to a candidate who runs on conservative principles, they’ll vote Republican,” said Marvin King, a political science professor at the University of Mississippi. “At least in the short term, there’s not a path for Democrats in Mississippi to have success at the statewide level. So right now Democrats have to build for the future, and they should ask themselves how they want to lose.”
“Do you want to lose on Democratic principles,” King said, “or do you want to lose on something you’re not?”
Janis Triplett Patterson, a retired community college professor from Booneville, saw the effects of this identity crisis play out down ticket last year as she ran for the state House of Representatives.
Running as a first-time candidate, Patterson was offered no policy guidance from the state Democratic Party. Using other statewide campaigns as an unofficial guide, she centered her messaging around three positions that have become standard for Democrats in Mississippi: expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, fully funding public education, and devoting more funding to the state’s crumbling roads and bridges.
But when voters would press her on more sensitive political issues in private gatherings, she opened up about her support for tightening gun restrictions and “empowering a woman’s ability to make health care decisions with doctors as opposed to being criminalized for them.”
“I didn’t go out of my way to talk about those things publicly, but when people asked I was always going to tell the truth. I knew that could lose me some points, but so be it,” Patterson said. “I told people that I was a Democrat and that I was not going to play both sides. I stand for the things I believe in, and I think I did that my entire campaign. Maybe that wasn’t the best strategy to take, I don’t know. But I ran for the reasons I believed were right.”
As Patterson implemented that strategy, Hood targeted those same voters in her district with advertisements featuring his pro-gun and anti-choice viewpoints, hoping to swing more white moderate voters — particularly in northeast Mississippi — his way in the governor’s race.
In the end, Hood’s strategy performed no better than Patterson’s. On Election Day, Hood received just one vote more than Patterson in that House district, where both candidates handily lost to their Republican opponents.
Voters in that district associated Hood’s and Patterson’s candidacies, even though the two candidates had policy diversions. But neither ultimately got enough votes to win because they were both Democrats.
“The party is in a terrible conundrum. Trying to find an ideological lodestar they can follow to victory is elusive,” said King. “They don’t have the numbers to win on the left, even though the left makes up the numerical majority of the party. But the moderates in Mississippi are conservative enough that they’re not going to vote Democratic.”
King continued: “It’s got to be disappointing if you’re a Mississippi voter who’s fairly progressive. You look at the top of the ticket and say, ‘I don’t like what I see here.’ They’re not enthusiastic about campaigning for or donating to candidates. I think the party would do better if it’d double down on the policy preferences of the majority of its voters, and they can build on that. But if your focus isn’t on generating passion among your base, then you don’t have a chance.”
A look at the Mississippi Democratic Party’s platform, adopted in 2016, would do little to help voters understand what the state party actually stands for.
Take health care, an issue that has stirred intense debate at the national Democratic Party level, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many high-profile progressives at the national level want “Medicare for All,” and others want to focus on expanding the Affordable Care Act to cover more Americans.
In its platform, the Mississippi Democratic Party doesn’t set itself apart from any other party or group on the issue of health care. Noticeably absent is specific mention of expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, a banner achievement of former President Barack Obama and a prominent campaign platform that most moderates and progressives in Mississippi share.
“We believe accessible, affordable, high-quality health care is part of the American promise, that Mississippians should have the security that comes with good health care, and that no one should go broke because he or she gets sick,” reads the complete health care platform of the Mississippi Democratic Party.
Several other key issues that Democrats champion during campaign season are ambiguous in the party platform. Issues like infrastructure, education and economics mention few, if any, specific policy positions. The issue that perhaps splits Mississippi Democrats the most — abortion — landed an open-ended, 14-word sentence in the 2016 platform: “We support a woman’s right to privacy in making her own health care decisions.”
Moak, the party chairman, said he does not believe the state party should take the lead on issues that candidates champion publicly; instead, he said elected officials should draw their own lines and expect party support.
“You have to realize you will not keep all the factions satisfied, okay, that’s just a fact of political life,” Moak said. “The party is not here to set policy positions. That’s for our elected officials whether at the city, county or state level. The issues they want to push is when the party needs to come in and say, ‘Let’s do this.’ You get behind them.”
Moak continued: “(Elected officials) are looking at things from a bigger view than we are, and they should have more information than the party has. And the party needs to back them up.”
But with so few prominent Democratic elected officials in recent years, the party has provided little policy or messaging backup, more than a dozen candidates and elected officials told Mississippi Today.
Jay Hughes, the white moderate who unsuccessfully ran for lieutenant governor in 2019, agrees. Like Rejebian, Hughes acknowledges that his 2019 strategy of appealing to white moderate voters cannot be a winning strategy moving forward.
“I couldn’t have been more of a moderate if I tried,” said Hughes, who lost the lieutenant governor’s race by about 20 points in 2019. “We need to admit that what we have isn’t working. It’s time to try something different and start from scratch.”