Mississippi Democratic Chairman Cheikh Taylor (second right), State Rep. Daryl Porter (right) and Democrat supporters gathered at the Sillers Building to protest Gov. Tate Reeves unveiling of a hospital program, Thursday, Sept. 21, 2023. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

When U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn was elected in 1992, he became the first African American elected to Congress from South Carolina in nearly a century.

Clyburn, considered a Democratic kingmaker and one of the most prominent Black elected officials in the nation, visited Jackson last weekend to sound alarm bells that if Jackson pastors, metro voters and college students do not organize and participate in the Nov. 7 election, a history of inadequate representation could repeat itself in the Deep South.

“We’ve got to do what is necessary to make sure that our children and our grandchildren don’t live the past that our parents and grandparents lived because there are forces who wish to turn the clock back,” Clyburn told a room of Mississippi Democrats on Oct. 15.

The South Carolina congressman joined U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson and top Mississippi Democratic Party officials last weekend as part of one of the largest, most coordinated get-out-the-vote efforts from the state party in recent years.

The events Clyburn attended on Oct. 15-16 targeted predominantly Black churches, Democratic Party base voters and students at historically Black colleges. 

He and state party officials visited several Jackson-area Black churches, historically anchors of progressive politics and activism, for weekend worship services, and they met separately with dozens of Black clergy members to discuss the importance of the Nov. 7 election. They visited Jackson State University and Tougaloo College, two historically Black universities, and Millsaps College to stress the importance of college students voting in elections.

The get-out-the-vote efforts from Democratic Party officials have continued into late October and have been focused across the state, not just in the Jackson metro.

This past weekend, state party leaders attended multiple events on the Gulf Coast, including a get-out-the-vote rally Sunday night at First Missionary Baptist Church Handsboro in Gulfport. The event, which organizers titled “Wake the Sleeping Giant,” was keynoted by Bishop William James Barber II, co-chair of the national organization Poor People’s Campaign.

The party will host a virtual organizing event called “Souls to the Polls” on Oct. 28, which is the first day of in-person absentee voting. The party has also hosted several town hall-style events in multiple Mississippi towns over the past few weeks focused on the state’s hospital crisis before mostly-Black audiences, culminating with a final stop on the tour in Jackson on Oct. 25.

And while party leaders organize their own events, Democratic candidates are benefitting from the independent electoral work of numerous third-party progressive organizations that are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to knock doors and target hyper-local Black communities. These groups, many of which have long organizing histories in Mississippi, are pumping money this cycle into door-knocking, phone banking, direct mailing, and digital and radio advertising.

But the party’s work of the past few weeks marks a noticeable shift in strategy to energize its base ahead of the 2023 election. Lackluster efforts with Black voters during the 2019 statewide election cycle from former state party leaders notoriously left candidates frustrated and Democratic voters feeling left behind.

“I don’t care if we’ve got a Democrat running for dog catcher now,” said Mississippi Democratic Party Chair Cheikh Taylor, who took over as leader of the state party in July. “I want us to win.”

The pitch to Black voters

Black Mississippi voters make up the overwhelming foundation of the Democratic Party — about two-thirds of the party’s voting base. If candidates and party leaders want to flip one of the eight statewide offices currently held by the GOP, encouraging Black voters to turn out on Election Day is critical.

Organizers of the recent political events have framed the upcoming election in a personal and somber tone, centered on how lives and personal health, particularly for Black Mississippians, are at stake in this election.

The basis for the grave tone is a fear that four more years of conservative policies from the Governor’s Mansion and state Capitol in one of the most impoverished states in the nation could dig the state deeper into negative health outcomes and cause rural hospitals to close. 

Every region in Mississippi, for example, ranked higher in infant mortality than the national average, according to the state’s 2021 Mississippi Infant Mortality Report released earlier this month. The three counties with the highest 10-year averages were counties in the majority-Black Delta.

Mississippi Democrats have said this problem and many others the state faces have been avoidable. They say if the state’s Republican leaders, who have held most of the state’s policymaking power since 2011, expanded Medicaid coverage to the working poor and strategically developed the Delta economically, some of those metrics could be reversed.

“People say all elections and all voting is local,” House Democratic Leader Rep. Robert Johnson III said last week. “No, no, no, all voting is personal. See, when you cast a vote, you’re not casting a vote for Brandon Presley. You’re casting a vote for yourself. You’re voting for something that’s going to happen for you.”

PODCAST: Rep. Robert Johnson says Black turnout could be key in 2023 election

Governor’s race is a peripheral focus

The bulk of media attention and national party resources during the election cycle has focused on Presley, the Democratic nominee for governor who has mounted a formidable campaign against Republican Gov. Tate Reeves and recently outraised the incumbent governor in campaign donations.

But most of the recent Black voter outreach events have not been framed exclusively around Presley’s race or any specific candidate. Rather, they have served as a repudiation of conservative policies over the last four years that, in the Democratic leaders’ view, harm Black communities. The events have served as a call to action to elect all Democrats on the ballot.

However, there have been instances when Presley’s work as north Mississippi’s public service commissioner was lauded, and his attendance at predominantly Black churches, HBCU football games and other places over the past few weeks was clearly noticed.

READ MORE: At Jackson State homecoming, Brandon Presley pledges to advocate for Mississippi HBCUs

Clyburn, for instance, who previously served as House majority whip, partnered with Presley in recent years to pass federal legislation that installed broadband in rural areas of the country. Those efforts, according to Clyburn, ultimately led President Joe Biden to push for broadband in the final version of the bipartisan infrastructure bill Congress passed in 2021.

“I’m here to say to you that if not for Brandon Presley, I don’t think we would have gotten broadband in our infrastructure bill,” Clyburn said to much applause. 

Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., left, comments on the support the Biden Administration has provided for rural broadband projects as Jason Gumbs, Regional Senior Vice President at Comcast, center, and Republican Gov. Tate Reeves listen at the Bolton-Edwards Elementary/Middle School, in Bolton, Miss., Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2023. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Clifton Carroll, a Reeves campaign spokesman, said in a statement that Presley has gotten support from “every corner of the national liberal machine” and brought millions of dollars into the state in an attempt to “flip it blue.”

“It’s no wonder that everyone from the Biden team to Bennie Thompson has gotten behind him — because he’s a true blue liberal Democrat,” Carroll said.

But Thompson, the state’s lone Democrat in Congress who has been a presence on the 2023 campaign trail, said the rhetoric from the Reeves campaign seeking to scare voters by connecting Presley with national Democrats is hypocritical. The governor, Thompson pointed out, has attempted to celebrate some of Biden’s policies and take credit for them, like he did with broadband efforts in late August.

“If you look at the resources that Joe Biden has put into the state of Mississippi, it’s unreal,” Thompson said. “And now, (Reeves) is trying to claim some of this money that we sent from Washington as if he’s being a good steward as governor and all of that.

“Look, right string, wrong yo-yo,” Thompson added.

New strategy from Democratic Party

The governor’s race aside, several progressive officials proclaimed the slate of Democratic statewide candidates was strong, and they were building a better foundation for the party that can continue to be stronger in future years.

The coordinated events last weekend when Clyburn visited were the first major ones the state Democratic Party has hosted since Taylor took over as chairman. Local Democrats’ ability to attract a national figure like Clyburn, a personal friend of Thompson, to Jackson is the first visit of its kind in several years.

When Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood ran for governor in 2019, for example, no major outside Democratic official came to Mississippi to stump for him. When former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy ran for U.S. Senate in 2018 as the Democratic nominee, then-U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris and U.S. Sen. Cory Booker stumped for him, but it was not billed around an organized event as was with Clyburn’s weekend visit.

Taylor, in quick fashion, has worked to build the weak foundation of the party up, brought national Democratic leaders to the state and, on Oct. 15, conducted the first large party fundraiser in several years.

“This party needs you, and we want to give you a reason to come back,” Taylor told party members at the fundraiser.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Brandon Presley visits with supporters during a forum concerning health at L.T. Ellis Community Center in Laurel, Miss., on Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2023. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

But Clyburn warned voters during his Mississippi visit that just because the state party is working against well-funded Republicans, that is not reason to sit out the upcoming race. One absent vote during an election, Clyburn said, can set off a ripple effect of policies that last generations. 

He illustrated that point by recounting when no presidential candidate in 1876 garnered a majority of the electoral college votes, the race was thrown to the U.S. House of Representatives to pick the winner.

The House became deadlocked and formed a 15-member committee to determine the winner for the highest office in the country. That committee then voted 8-7 to choose Rutherford B. Hayes as president, who eventually agreed to remove federal troops from Southern states, effectively nixing Reconstruction in the Deep South.

That one-vote margin allowed white Southerners to institute Black Codes that barred African Americans, such as the eight congressmen that preceded Clyburn, from voting and holding office.

“You must remember that clock got turned back by one vote,” Clyburn told Mississippians during his visit. “I want you to remember that. Are you that one vote who allows the clock to get turned back this time, or will you be that one vote to keep it from happening?”

READ MORE: New governor’s race poll shows Reeves leading Presley by just one point

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Taylor, a native of Grenada, covers state government and statewide elections. He is a graduate of the University of Mississippi and Holmes Community College. Before joining Mississippi Today, Taylor reported on state and local government for the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, where he received an award for his coverage of the federal government’s lawsuit against the state’s mental health system.