Democratic U.S. Senate challenger Mike Espy with campaign workers greet drivers traveling Watkins Drive in Jackson on Oct. 23, 2020. Espy canvassed the Valley North subdivision. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

Mississippi Democrats must be asking themselves why they cannot do what Republicans did in Virginia and almost did in New Jersey this past week.

In Virginia, of course, the Republican candidate for governor, Glenn Youngkin, defeated the former Democratic governor, Terry McAuliffe. In New Jersey, the Republican came close to defeating incumbent Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy.

Democrats in Mississippi, on the other hand, have not won a gubernatorial election since 1999. And to top it off, no Democrat running for governor in Mississippi has come as close to winning as Republican Jack Ciattarelli came to upending Murphy in New Jersey.

Both New Jersey and Virginia have been Democratic strongholds. In the 2020 presidential election, Democrat Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump by 10 points in Virginia and by 16 points in New Jersey, which incidentally is about the same margin by which Trump won Mississippi.

If Republicans can prevail in those deep blue states, why can’t Democrats win in Mississippi?

No doubt, one day a Democrat will win again in Mississippi. Many view Northern District Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley as the next best chance for Democrats to recapture the Governor’s Mansion.

But two years before the 2023 election, Presley is playing his political cards close to his vest.

“That log will shake itself out between now and election year, and, you know, quite frankly, the good Lord will open doors or shut doors however he sees fit,” Presley said recently on Mississippi Today’s The other side podcast.

He added, “We’re two years out… I’m not worried about any of that.”

Presley, despite his country charm and communicative abilities that rival those of former Republican Gov. Haley Barbour, faces headwinds in Mississippi that the Republican candidates in Virginia and New Jersey did not endure.

For instance, a 2020 study by FiveThirtyEight, a respected blog that breaks down political trends and data, labels the Mississippi electorate as the nation’s least elastic or least persuadable. In other words, Mississippi voters are less likely to vote for a candidate of the party they normally oppose even in cases of scandal or economic turmoil.

Mississippi is not the most Republican state. But it has the least — per capita — persuadable voters, according to FiveThirtyEight. Mississippi has more Republicans who will not vote for the Democratic candidate and more Democrats who will not support the Republican candidate.

An argument can be made that race is a factor in that inelasticity. Most white people vote Republican in Mississippi and most African Americans vote Democratic. Polls bear out that fact. For instance, CNN exit polls from the 2018 Senate special election in Mississippi found 84% of white voters supported the Republican candidates and 94% of African Americans supported the Democratic candidates.

The same FiveThirtyEight study found Virginia in the bottom 10 states in terms of elasticity and New Jersey in the middle. New Hampshire and Rhode Island had the most persuadable voters.

For whatever it is worth, the study found Alabama is the second least persuadable state. Still, Alabama elected Democrat Doug Jones to the U.S. Senate in a 2017 special election. Of course, Jones barely squeaked by controversial former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore, who among other things was accused of sexual misconduct, including with some underage girls.

Can anyone say scandal?

Of course, three years later in the 2020 regular election, Jones was trounced by former Auburn and Ole Miss football coach Tommy Tuberville, a political novice who ran as a Republican.

While the loss in Virginia and unexpectedly close election in New Jersey do not look good for Democrats, there were some unusual circumstances. In Virginia, McAuliffe, who was first elected governor in 2017, was trying to become the first governor to serve two terms since the 1970s. Virginia governors cannot succeed themselves but can serve multiple terms. Plus, the state has a long history of electing governors opposite of the party of the president at the time.

For instance, a Republican won the governorship in 2009 despite the fact Democrat Barack Obama won the state only a year earlier when running for president. Now granted, Democrats did get trounced a year later in the 2010 midterms, but two years after that shellacking Obama comfortably won re-election.

In New Jersey, Murphy was vying to be the first Democratic governor to serve consecutive terms since the 1970s.

But there are other examples of states electing governors and other statewide officials opposite of the party they most often strongly support in presidential elections. Kentucky and Louisiana, solid Republican states in national elections and in most other instances, have Democratic governors just as strong Democratic states like Massachusetts and Maryland have Republican governors.

So perhaps there is hope yet for Mississippi Democrats.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Take our 2023 reader survey

Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.