Dems face tough road ahead in Deep South

Dems face tough road ahead in Deep South
© Getty Images

Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R) won Mississippi’s runoff election despite several stumbles, showcasing the tough road ahead for Democrats in Deep South races in 2019 and 2020.

Though her nearly 8-point margin of victory over Democrat Mike Espy was smaller than past races in Mississippi, it still marks another Democratic defeat in the South after Stacey Abrams lost her governor bid in Georgia, dashing the party’s hopes of making inroads in a region with a widening rural and suburban divide.

Democrats will now be on defense in Louisiana in 2019 when the only Democratic governor in the Deep South is up for reelection. They’re also defending Sen. Doug Jones (D), a top GOP target who won a huge upset in Alabama last year and faces reelection in 2020.


But the party is eyeing offensive opportunities in Mississippi’s and Kentucky’s gubernatorial races next year thanks to promising candidates, as well as Georgia’s Senate race in the 2020 battle for the majority.

Democrats also believe that Espy’s ability to energize black voters through a large grass-roots organization and improve their standing in suburbs with college-educated voters can serve as a roadmap for the party’s candidates in the Deep South.

“I think the Republicans can point to Hyde-Smith, even with her potentially weaker-than-average result, who was still able to win relatively comfortably,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball. “Democrats can say they ran way ahead of Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonSanders campaign reports raising M in less than a day The Memo: Bernie Sanders’s WH launch sharpens ‘socialist’ question Roger Stone invokes gag order in new fundraiser MORE,” who lost the state by nearly 18 points in 2016.

“Both sides can point to some positives, but states like Mississippi are really hard for Democrats.”

Hyde-Smith prevailed in Tuesday’s election despite a series of gaffes, including most prominently by joking that she would be willing to attend a “public hanging” if invited by a supporter.

She will serve the remaining two years of retired Sen. Thad CochranWilliam (Thad) Thad CochranTop 5 races to watch in 2019 Bottom Line Races Dems narrowly lost show party needs to return to Howard Dean’s 50 state strategy MORE’s (R) term and will face reelection for a full six-year term in 2020.

Like most states this cycle, Mississippi has a growing demographic and geographic divide.

Even as southern Democrats successfully mobilize more black and suburban voters, many of these states have large pockets of rural areas dominated by Republicans and where President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump nominates Jeffrey Rosen to replace Rosenstein at DOJ McCabe says ‘it’s possible’ Trump is a Russian asset McCabe: Trump ‘undermining the role of law enforcement’ MORE remains popular.

Espy saw an uptick in the Delta, where a large number of African-Americans reside, in a state where 38 percent of the population is black. And his campaign heavily focused on boosting turnout among college students, which helped him run up the score more in places like Hattiesburg.

He also saw growing numbers in the suburbs of Jackson and Memphis, slightly surpassing former President Obama’s 2008 totals there, according to The Cook Political Report.

But it wasn’t enough, though Hyde-Smith’s margin of victory was much smaller than fellow Sen. Roger WickerRoger Frederick WickerTrump signs executive order to boost AI technology Hillicon Valley: Feds looking into Bezos claims about National Enquirer | Amazon reconsidering New York City HQ2 move | Sprint sues AT&T over 5G marketing claims Senate to hold hearing on potential privacy bill MORE’s (R-Miss.) 20-point romp this year.

Hyde-Smith saw a bounce in GOP strongholds in the Gulf Coast and the northeast part of Mississippi — both areas where Trump campaigned on the eve of Tuesday’s runoff.

Looking toward other upcoming tough elections in the South, strategists believe Democrats need to boost turnout among key support groups — similar to Espy’s results among black and suburban voters — but also attract some of the rural voters gravitating to the Republican Party.

In Louisiana, Gov. John Bel Edwards, the last remaining Democratic governor in the South, is running for reelection in an October primary.

In 2015, Edwards was initially seen as an underdog, but easily defeated then-Sen. David VitterDavid Bruce VitterBottom Line Bottom Line Top 5 races to watch in 2019 MORE (R-La.).

Edwards, who has sought to craft a centrist image, is likely to get some high-profile GOP challengers.

Sen. John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE (R) appears to be leaning toward a run and has said he will decide by the end of the week. Rep. Ralph Abraham and state Attorney General Jeff Landry are also considered potential GOP candidates. The only declared GOP challenger is Eddie Rispone, who’s said he’ll self-fund his campaign.

In Alabama, Jones is defending his seat after beating former state Supreme Court Justice Roy MooreRoy Stewart MooreRepublican state official faces pushback for comments on Sinema's attire Hillicon Valley: Dem blasts groups behind Senate campaign disinformation effort | FCC chief declines to give briefing on location-data sales | Ocasio-Cortez tops lawmakers on social media | Trump officials to ease drone rules Domestic influence campaigns borrow from Russia’s playbook MORE in the 2017 special election. Moore faced multiple allegations of sexual misconduct, which he denied, and ultimately lost to Jones by a little over a point.

Jones needs to again woo black voters in a state where African-Americans make up a quarter of the population, in addition to winning back those same GOP crossover voters from 2017.

But he has a large target on his back from Republicans, who are already ratcheting up the rhetoric, tying him closely to Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerGOP Green New Deal stunt is a great deal for Democrats National emergency declaration — a legal fight Trump is likely to win House Judiciary Dems seek answers over Trump's national emergency declaration MORE (D-N.Y.) and attacking him for voting against Supreme Court Justice Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughBudowsky: Roberts Court faces its own state of emergency The 10 Dems most likely to win the 2020 presidential nomination Five things to watch as Barr takes the reins of Justice, Mueller probe MORE’s confirmation.

Alabama saw record midterm turnout in the November election, but no statewide Democrat received more than 41 percent of the vote.

Democrats did better in November in Alabama’s Jefferson County — home to Birmingham and its suburbs — which turned bluer, and in state contests down-ballot. 

But Bill Britt, the founder of the nonpartisan Alabama Political Reporter, argued Democrats need more than just Democratic voters in Jefferson to overcome Republicans statewide.

“It’s going to be a hard climb for Doug, and it’s not that he’s done a bad job, it’s just the demographics favor Republicans,” said Britt. “He probably didn’t lose the moderates that put him over the top. Some people in the South think divided government is a good thing.”

Rep. Bradley ByrneBradley Roberts ByrneFive takeaways from the latest fundraising reports in the lead-up to 2020 House lawmakers look to reassure Australia after Mattis resignation GOP struggles to find right Republican for Rules MORE (R-Ala.) is likely to challenge Jones and is seen as a top contender. But the big unknown is whether former Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsTrump nominates Jeffrey Rosen to replace Rosenstein at DOJ McCabe says he was interviewed by Mueller CNN hires former DOJ spokesperson under Sessions as editor on 2020 campaign MORE would mount a bid for his old seat.

Byrnes told that he recently spoke with Sessions twice, saying that Sessions didn’t mention running for Senate. 

Sessions is a popular figure in Alabama, but his poor relationship with Trump could present a challenge in a state where the president remains popular.

Meanwhile, Democrats are looking to flip two governor’s mansions in 2019.

In Mississippi, popular Gov. Phil Bryant (R) is term-limited. The race to replace him has attracted four-term state Attorney General Jim Hood, the state’s only Democratic statewide elected official. Hood, who’s previously been courted to run, is considered more conservative than Espy and already has experience running statewide.

From the GOP, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves is seen as the likely front-runner, though he hasn’t made it official.

Meanwhile, in Kentucky, Democrats are hoping to take out Republican Gov. Matt Bevin, who has a low approval rating.

Democrat Andy Beshear, the state’s attorney general and son of former Gov. Steve Beshear, declared over the summer that he’ll challenge Bevin. Andy Beshear plans to focus on this spring’s Kentucky teacher protests over school funding and pension reform.

Both parties will be closely watching the Kentucky race a year before Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellDems think they're beating Trump in emergency declaration battle Sanders: 'Not crazy' about nixing the Senate filibuster McCabe: No one in 'Gang of Eight' objected to FBI probe into Trump MORE (R-Ky.) faces reelection in 2020. But Republicans still have a strong edge in the state.

Democrats are also eyeing the race against Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) in a state that had mixed results for the party on Nov. 6.

Abrams was narrowly defeated for governor in Georgia, but Democrat Lucy McBathLucia (Lucy) Kay McBathHow gun control activists learned from the NRA Dem whose son was killed in shooting: Gun violence is the real national emergency, ‘not a wall’ House panel advances bill to expand background checks for gun sales MORE defeated GOP Rep. Karen HandelKaren Christine HandelDem whose son was killed in shooting: Gun violence is the real national emergency, ‘not a wall’ DCCC official says Democrats look to make 'big gains' in Texas, Georgia Ossoff tests waters for Georgia Senate run MORE in Atlanta’s suburbs.

Abrams, who was vying to become the first black female governor in U.S. history, also saw a surge in black voter turnout that Democrats will need again for the 2020 race. African-American voters make up about a third of Georgia’s population.

Democrats are hopeful that some 2018 silver linings from the South can buoy them in future races, but they are unlikely to succeed unless they can win more crossover voters in these deep-red states.

“In the short term ... there’s not much hope to overcome the urban/rural divide,” said Kondik, of Sabato’s Crystal Ball. “Rural white areas can outvote African-Americans in cities, especially with the combination of Republican suburbs and exurbs with rural areas.”