Dems face tough road ahead in Deep South

Dems face tough road ahead in Deep South
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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.

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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 ClintonRoger Stone fundraising off promise not to testify against Trump Rivaling chants of 'USA,' 'lock him up' greet Flynn after sentencing hearing The Hill's 12:30 Report — Flynn awaits sentencing | White House signals it wants to avoid shutdown 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 CochranBottom Line Races Dems narrowly lost show party needs to return to Howard Dean’s 50 state strategy Espy files to run for Senate in 2020, setting up possible rematch with Hyde-Smith 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 TrumpREAD: Transcript of James Comey's interview with House Republicans Klobuchar on 2020: ‘I do think you want voices from the Midwest’ Israel boycott fight roils Democrats in year-end spending debate 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 WickerAlmost half of US residents don't use broadband internet: study Afghanistan war at a stalemate, top general tells lawmakers Grassley open to legislation making it tougher for Trump to impose tariffs on national security grounds 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 VitterLouisiana congressman to challenge Dem Gov Kennedy says he won't run for Louisiana governor next year Dems face tough road ahead in Deep South 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 MooreDoug Jones: Carmakers 'scared to death' over Trump tariffs Dems face tough road ahead in Deep South Republicans should give middle class another 10 percent tax cut 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 SchumerMake Trump own the shutdown over his ill-advised border wall More than a tantrum McConnell’s marijuana conundrum: Cory Gardner MORE (D-N.Y.) and attacking him for voting against Supreme Court Justice Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughDemocrats will fail if they portray William Barr as controversial pick ‘Justice’ selected as Merriam-Webster’s 2018 word of the year Chief justice of California Supreme Court leaves GOP over Kavanaugh confirmation 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 ByrneGOP struggles to find right Republican for Rules Dems face tough road ahead in Deep South On The Money: Trump to seek new round of tax cuts after midterms | Mnuchin meets with Saudi crown prince | Trump threatens to cut foreign aid over caravan 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 SessionsPresidential historian: Trump's actions may be 'definition of treason' if he knew about Russian interference efforts Trump admin seeks to roll back Obama-era policy on school discipline: report Trump: Sessions 'should be ashamed of himself' for allowing Russia probe to proceed MORE would mount a bid for his old seat.

Byrnes told AL.com 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 McConnellIsrael boycott fight roils Democrats in year-end spending debate Schumer blasts GOP request for immigration 'slush fund' Trump: 'Too early to say' if shutdown will be averted 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 McBathOssoff tests waters for Georgia Senate run Jon Ossoff considering 2020 run for Senate in Georgia: report New House GOP campaign chairman lays out challenges for 2020 MORE defeated GOP Rep. Karen HandelKaren Christine HandelOssoff tests waters for Georgia Senate run Jon Ossoff considering 2020 run for Senate in Georgia: report New House GOP campaign chairman lays out challenges for 2020 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.”