Both Louisiana and Mississippi saw gubernatorial and legislative elections three weeks ago. The differing results in the governor’s races offer real lessons about both the continued value of strategic campaign decisions and the uneven effects of demographic change on the political landscape in the South. The similar outcome in the legislatures, where Democrats saw losses across the board, serve as a reminder that many southern Democrats remain vulnerable in the years ahead and more losses are possible.
In this article, we take a look at the key takeaways from the elections in Louisiana and Mississippi and the implications for 2020.
Tale of Two Governor’s Races
On Election Night 2019, John Bel Edwards, the incumbent Democratic Governor of Louisiana, beat Republican businessman Eddie Rispone 51.3% — 48.7%. Meanwhile, Jim Hood, the current Democratic Attorney General of Mississippi, fell to Republican Lt. Governor Tate Reeves 46.6% — 52.1%. Even though Hood lost, both results can be seen to be major successes for Democrats. Louisiana went to Trump by 20 points, Mississippi by 18. Hood got the highest percentage of the vote for a Democratic gubernatorial candidate in 16 years.
Still, one lost and the other won. What made the difference?
1. Campaigns still matter
John Bel Edwards (we’ll call him “JBE”) ran a compelling and sophisticated campaign. As he wrote with Andy Beshear in the Washington Post, his clear, focused message on health care, education, and jobs allowed him to resonate with the moderate-to-conservative electorate in Louisiana. As Democrats confront the serious challenges of winning at the state level in 2020, they would do well to heed JBE’s messaging story.
That message was combined with adequately aggressive techniques to undermine the opposition. Eddie Rispone defeated fellow Republican, Congressman Ralph Abraham, in the all-party primary. Abraham hailed from the northeast of the state. JBE’s team ran ads recounting the negative remarks that Rispone had made about Abraham. While JBE still lost Abraham’s congressional district and the northeast more broadly, the tactic had its intended effect. In Ouachita Parish, where Trump held his pre-election rally, JBE snagged only 37.8% of the vote in the primary as Abraham and Rispone combined for 61.3% of the vote. In the general, JBE got over 45%, netting 7,000 votes.
Jim Hood’s campaign was the opposite of modern and effective. He ran a highly siloed campaign, apart from other statewide campaigns and legislative races. The campaign and candidate were laconic, perhaps representing an overly-confident candidate (Hood led in early internal polling released by his campaign) without the urgency to win in a changing Mississippi.
2. Black voters matter
It should not bear repeating that Democrats’ path to success in Louisiana and Mississippi requires successful engagement to motivate African-American voters to turn out at high levels. Mississippi (37.3%) and Louisiana (32.4%) are the two states with the highest proportion of African-American residents in the country. And yet, the campaigns took vastly different approaches.
JBE’s team built an impressive turnout operation in New Orleans, topping 110,000 votes in Orleans Parish, adding nearly 30,000 votes from the primary. He achieved a similar vote gain in Baton Rouge. GOTV efforts targeting African-Americans had notable success.
Hood’s campaign, meanwhile, created an extended controversy over whether they were supporting the African-American candidate for Attorney General, distracting from efforts to bring African-American voters into the fold. A compounding factor for Hood is the large proportion of African-Americans in rural areas. Over half of black Mississippians live in rural areas versus less than one-third in Louisiana. Democrats have struggled in the post-Obama era in particular to excite rural African-Americans. Hood’s campaign efforts did not do much to reverse that trend.
3. Ride the demographic shifts, but change the game, too
One of the biggest outcomes of 2019 in Louisiana, as well as Andy Beshear’s victory in Kentucky, is an understanding of how to win in “ancestrally Democratic” places in the midst of demographic changes. In these places, Democrats have to double down on the college-educated suburbs that propel them to victory in states like Virginia. For example, JBE snagged 57% of the vote in Jefferson Parish, a formerly Republican suburban bastion. Hood just barely snagged Madison County, a conservative and white county north of Jackson.
But in these states with large rural populations and limited college-educated populations, winning in these places is not enough. We have to outperform national Democrats with other groups. In Kentucky, Andy Beshear held pat in Appalachia. JBE won rural counties southeast of Shreveport and around Baton Rouge and lost Calcasieu Parish, a conservative area around Lake Charles, by only 3 points. While Hood broadly outperformed other Democrats in rural counties throughout the state, he failed to break out in Northeast Mississippi, a formerly reliable Democratic area that has swung hard to the GOP. Hood lost Lee County, around Tupelo, by 18 points.
Senate and House Losses
While there were some election night victories, Democrats largely had disappointing nights in both states.
In Mississippi, Democrats are looking at a net loss in both chambers. Democrats lost four seats in the Senate, and only picked up one. Republicans now control the Senate 36–16. As of January 1, 2019, Republicans controlled the Mississippi State House 74–48. After some party switching earlier in the year and the results on Election Day, Republicans now control the Mississippi State House 75–46 with one GOP-leaning Independent.
On the bright side, we still see room for growth for Democrats in Mississippi. Below we show districts that we think could be competitive in the future that would put Democrats on the path to breaking the Republican supermajority in four years. We also show the districts that Democrats lost. While some of them are unlikely to be won back in the near future, some of them lean Democratic (or slightly Republican) and are future pickup opportunities.
What do these state legislative results mean for 2020?
With our work in Mississippi in 2019, we focus most of our analysis below on what happened in the Magnolia State and its implications for the future.
1. The bleeding in the South, and other GOP-leaning areas, is not over
In Mississippi, Democrats’ losses in Republican-leaning districts are a reminder that gains on the state legislative level haven’t been wholly one-sided over the past three cycles. While Democrats have now flipped almost 450 state legislative seats from red to blue, Republicans have flipped over 100 districts from blue to red. Most of these seats are in districts that strongly lean Republican. In the South, continued losses build on many of the profound losses seen during the Obama years. Old loyalties meant that Democrats continued to control legislatures like Louisiana and Mississippi in the South through 2010–2011. There are hundreds of Democratic-held seats across the country that lean Republican, a reminder to Democrats in 2020 that longtime incumbents aren’t always safe. Extra attention will need to be paid to holding these seats, particularly in states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, where losing these seats could create real obstacles to a chance at a majority.
2. Candidate recruitment is still inconsistent
Democrats failed to recruit candidates in several competitive districts in both Louisiana and Mississippi. In some districts, though there was a candidate, the candidate was not a strong recruit well-suited to the district. This is not to say that leadership in these states is solely to blame for this problem. In Virginia this year, state legislative candidates benefitted from a strong network of in-state and national support, while national groups have largely left a place like Mississippi behind. It’s hard to ask people to run when there’s limited support provided to those who do step up to the challenge. But we have to keep asking, and we shouldn’t let anyone tell us that 2019 shows us that recruiting is being handled as well as it must be.
In Mississippi, money was harder to come by for candidates. Mississippi has some of the cheapest state legislative costs in the country; for $50,000 you can run a competitive campaign. But $50,000 doesn’t leave a lot of room in the budget. It’s hard to hire staff or run a full mail and digital budget for that amount of money. If Democrats were to seriously invest in these races, so candidates could run fully professionalized campaigns, there’d be a lot more money to reach out and engage voters in a serious way. This is another reason why we think there’s a lot of room for growth in Mississippi.
And while Mississippi is an exceptionally low cost state, it’s not the only 2020 target state where Democrats can win important seats for less than $100,000. Low cost states in Arizona, Kansas, and Montana all offer serious pickup opportunities. Democrats could change the game in those states with early investments.
Now that we’ve looked back at Virginia, Louisiana, and Mississippi, our next pieces will speak to the opportunities ahead of us in 2020. Stay tuned.