After fracturing over the past decade, political alliances have settled along racial lines because of defections of white Democrats. About 90 percent of white people in the state vote Republican, a higher share of conservative white voters than any other state, according to Tom Bonier, CEO of TargetSmart, a Democratic data firm.
“What we’re seeing is that our politics is no longer red and blue,” said Jared Turner, a political strategist who worked on Democrat Mike Espy’s failed Senate campaign in Mississippi last year. “It’s Black and white.”
Mississippi does have a growing non-white population in common with Georgia. The share of nonwhite Mississippi residents is expected to reach 46 percent in 2030, according to the State Data Center in Mississippi. But demography often isn’t enough for Democrats to turn Southern states into presidential battlegrounds.
For starters, Mississippi lacks key features that have put Georgia and a handful of other Southern states in play: bustling metropolitan areas with an influx of highly-educated, liberal professionals and a booming economy with an array of high-paying jobs. While states such as Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas are becoming more competitive, it takes a unique combination of factors to flip a state blue. And as the results of the presidential election in Florida showed, political loyalties can shift among communities of color, so there’s no guarantee for Democrats even when demographics appear to be moving in their favor.
Trouble in rural areas
In Mississippi and many other states, the most daunting challenge for Democrats is the near-wholesale rejection of the party by rural voters.
The party is still reeling from down-ballot losses in congressional and state house races even as Joe Biden won the presidency. Democrats spent millions of dollars in an attempt to flip seats in deep red states with little to show for it.
To notch statewide Democratic wins in the near future, two things will need to happen in Mississippi: More white voters will need to cross over, and there will need to be explosive turnout from Black voters, who have become increasingly disillusioned with Democrats.
“We’re not a one-party state, but it isn’t easy for Democrats to win statewide or in large sections of the state,” said former Republican Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour. “Our state is a good deal harder than Georgia for Democrats.”
White Mississippians have fled the Democratic Party since the state House and Senate flipped to Republican majorities in 2011. The trend has accelerated during the Trump administration. Just five of 44 Democrats in the state House, which elects members in odd years, are white. Two white lawmakers switched their party allegiance from Democrat to independent last year, saying they were looking out for their moderate districts, both of which are majority Black.
Just two of the 16 Democrats in the state Senate now are two white.
Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith, Mississippi’s junior senator, was a Democratic state Senator until she ran as a Republican for agriculture commissioner about a decade ago.
“The most difficult problem in Mississippi is race,” said Tyree Irving, who last year was elected the first Black chairman of the Mississippi Democratic party in a quarter-century. “When I was describing the relationship between white Democrats and Black Democrats in recent years, race looms large in that situation.”
The previous six Democratic party chairman have been white, according to Mississippi Today, a local non-profit news organization. Many in the party, such as Rep. Robert L. Johnson III, think the party’s past appeals to moderate white voters failed. Irving’s win with two-thirds of the Democratic executive committee members was an implicit acknowledgment that a new approach is needed.
In 2019, for example, Democrat Jim Hood, then the state’s attorney general, ran for governor with a campaign that showed off his conservative credentials: namely, his pro-gun, anti-abortion stance. He lost to Republican Tate Reeves by nearly 6 points.
The losses by Hood and Espy exposed an existential challenge in Mississippi, said Brannon Miller, a Democratic strategist in the state. Broadly speaking, when the party tries to win over white voters, it loses Black ones. When a candidate goes after Black votes, it loses white ones.
“It’s like playing whack a mole,” Miller said.
‘I’m not into moral victories. We lost.’
Unlike Georgia, North Carolina and Texas, Mississippi hasn’t experienced explosive population growth that’s shifted the political balance of power. There isn’t a surfeit of big cities and suburbs or major corporations. Tort reform all but killed the state Democratic party’s major donor base. And widespread poverty has made small-dollar fundraising challenging, as out-of-state donors rarely put money into what they see as long-shot bids.
Even when out-of-state donors do open up their wallets, Democrats still lose statewide.
Espy raised $12 million for his Senate campaign compared with $3.3 million by Hyde-Smith, according to federal election data. Polls showed him within striking distance of the Republican incumbent.
But when Espy arrived to vote at 7 a.m. on Nov. 3 at a church in Ridgeland, and saw a line of mainly white, unmasked voters wrapped around the parking lot, he knew he was going to lose.
Espy outperformed Biden, who lost Mississippi by 16.5 percentage points, and made inroads in three predominately white suburban counties. He won more votes than Barack Obama did in the state in 2012. But he still lost to Hyde-Smith by 10 percentage points.
“I’m not into moral victories,” Espy said. “We lost.”
Espy said that much of the money he raised came in the months before the election, which wasn’t enough time to build out the infrastructure that a Democrat needs to win the state. Republicans, however, were motivated early on to show up for Donald Trump.
“Trump just gave the order for his base to turn out. We saw more voters turn out in Mississippi, and they were aligned against the Democratic Party brand,” Espy said in his first interview since the election.
To illustrate his point, he described three progressive ballot initiatives — a measure legalizing medical marijuana, one approving a state flag design without the Confederate Battle Flag, and one removing a hurdle for people running for state office. All three initiatives passed the same day he lost.
“If you told me that all three of those would have passed handily and I would have lost by 130,000 votes, I wouldn’t have believed it,” said Espy, who in 1987 became the first African American from Mississippi to serve in Congress since Reconstruction.
“Me as an emblem of the Democratic brand wasn’t acceptable in this environment.”
‘Democrats allowed themselves to become an urban party’
Mississippi is one of the only states in the South to lose population during the past two years because of the lack of jobs, according to the Mississippi Center for Public Policy. Georgia and Texas, on the other hand, are two of the fastest-growing states in the country.
Immigration has grown in Mississippi, but not enough to significantly shift the state’s political landscape, as it did in Georgia. Around 2.4 percent of Mississippi’s population was born in another country, according to the Migration Policy Institute.
One political outlier is DeSoto County, tucked in in the northwestern corner of the state, which has become a bedroom community for people who work across the border in relatively liberal Memphis, Tenn. In 2019, Democratic state Rep. Hester Jackson McCray beat her Republican opponent by 14 votes, becoming the first Black person to represent the majority white county. DeSoto still voted for Trump this November, but it ranked 80th out of 3,006 counties that swung towards Democrats, said Bonier.
Democratic strategist James Carville said that the party’s challenges in Mississippi point to broader problems within the party. Democrats aren’t reaching the rural population, white or Black.
“The problem is that Democrats allowed themselves to become an urban party,” he said. “In a state with not many urban centers it makes it difficult. Until we’re able to have some broader appeal we’re going to be relegated to being an urban party.”
‘It’s not about the color of anybody’s skin.’
Irving, the state Democratic chair, said he thinks there’s an appetite for progressive ideas in Mississippi, pointing to the success of the ballot initiatives and Espy’s strength compared to Biden’s.
Nearly 20 percent of Mississippians live in poverty, the highest in the country, according to the U.S. Census. Health and educational outcomes have been dismal. The pandemic has left a trail of devastation across the state: More than 4,000 people have died and hundreds of thousands have filed for unemployment assistance since March.
Irving said the party needs to move left and lean into its Black base of support rather than taking their votes for granted. His goal isn’t to alienate white voters, but rather embrace an agenda that appeals to a broader group of Black voters in the state.
“It is an insult to think or suggest that Black Democrats should do more to elect white Democrats to statewide office without the white candidate putting forth a policy agenda that addresses the needs and concerns of Black Democrats,” Irving said in a follow-up email.
He’s focused on turning out Black voters — and some younger white voters — by talking about issues like reducing student loan burdens and building a bench of local Black lawmakers who are ready to run statewide. But he said the party also needs to counter a narrative that Democrats want to take money from white people to give to Black people, or that Black people disproportionately receive benefits in the state.
“You have Southern politicians, and white Democrats in years past were guilty as well, they have fed white Mississippians a racial diet — three meals a day of it — to keep poor and average middle-income Mississippians separated along racial lines,” Irving said.
He’s also got to rebuild a local party infrastructure. Espy’s campaign left behind voter data and a volunteer network that Irving hopes to build in the coming years.
A hollowed-out state party
Starting local rather than focusing on high-profile statewide races will be the key to eventually breaking Republican dominance in Mississippi, said Rep. Bennie Thompson, the lone Mississippi Democrat in Congress and the longest serving African American elected official in the state.
Thompson said the state party has been hollowed out over years. Even the party headquarters was run down until a few years ago. The party needs to rebuild brick by brick, he said, a task that will require investment and attention from national Democrats.
Irving “understands that you have to build that infrastructure locally if you expect to win statewide or nationally,” Thompson said.
“I’m a realist,” he said. “It’s not a two- or three-round fight. It might be a two-year or three-year fight, but we’re fighting.”
One of Irving’s first goals is to oust Greenwood’s popular incumbent mayor, Carolyn McAdams, in June. More than 73 percent of the population of Greenwood, Irving’s hometown and the site of Emmitt Till’s death, is Black. McAdams is white. McAdams was first elected in 2009, beating incumbent Sheriel Perkins, Greenwood’s first Black mayor. She’s been reelected repeatedly as an independent.
“I hope people see I am fair,” said McAdams. “It’s not about the color of anybody’s skin.”
But local Democratic youth activist Robert Wilson Jr. said that he thinks she’s been in office too long. Like Irving, he wants to replace her with a progressive Democrat.
“She’s a great person, but sometimes just being a great person isn’t enough,” said Wilson. “She lost touch with things going on in actual communities.”
Wilson said that after Irving first got elected to serve as state party chair, Irving sent him an email inviting him to an online meeting. It was the first time the state party had sought him out.
“The previous chairman, I would reach out to him and nothing would ever come of it,” said Wilson. Now he feels “a little bit of optimism” that the state Democratic party is finally paying attention to younger voters and local elections.
Irving knows it’s an uphill battle in the deeply conservative state. But he’s setting his sights on flipping at least one statewide office in 2023.
“I know how that may sound, given Mississippi’s history — that a Black man in Mississippi thinks he can provide a path towards a blue state,” said Irving. “But I’m not smoking anything funny.”