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Mississippi's Democrats look to Georgia for lessons — but face even bigger challenges

Political experts say Mississippi won't see nail-biter elections, especially at the nation level, anytime soon — thanks in part to stalled population growth.
Image: Illustration of a sign says \"Now Leaving Mississippi\" surrounded by GOP and Republican support signs on Route 61.
In recent years, millennials have left Mississippi more than their peers in other Southeastern states. The exodus of potential progressive voters is one challenge that Mississippi Democrats face. George Wylesol / for NBC News

JACKSON, Miss. — At the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum here, what started as a fingers-crossed watch party for Democratic Senate candidate Mike Espy ended in dismay by the time Jarrius Adams arrived.

Adams had spent much of Election Day working with a voting rights organization that combats voter suppression, and he was optimistic that Espy would prevail in unseating Republican incumbent Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith.

Adams is 23. The last time a Democratic presidential or Senate nominee carried the state was before he had been born. On election night, the Republican streak remained unbroken.

In addition to widely supporting President Donald Trump, Mississippi voters re-elected Hyde-Smith by more than 13 percentage points, almost doubling her winning margin against Espy in a 2018 special election.

“Him losing was not even the biggest bummer,” Adams said. “It was the margin that he lost by.”

Mike Espy and Cindy Hyde-Smith during their televised debate in Jackson, Miss., on Nov. 20, 2018.Rogelio V. Solis / AP file

In another corner of the Southeast, the night was far from over. In Georgia, it was too close to call the state’s presidential contest. For almost three decades, Georgia was a safe bet for Republicans, alongside Mississippi and other Deep South states. Now, the state was home to a dead heat watched by the nation. The drama came to a close on Friday, when NBC News projected Biden as the apparent winner.

While Georgia’s tight race showed Democratic operatives across the South what’s possible — with an aggressive voter turnout campaign, a multiracial coalition of voters and record participation among young voters — the goal of turning a red state purple remains far from reality in Mississippi. Thirty-eight percent of residents in the state are Black, the highest percentage in the country. Most Black Mississippians vote for Democrats, but the state still has more conservative white voters, and they tend to vote Republican and decide elections.

Party leaders, organizers and political experts say there are a number of unresolved issues — including strained race relations, voter suppression and the disenfranchisement of citizens convicted of certain crimes — that will prevent Mississippi from seeing nail-biter elections, especially at the national level, anytime soon.

There’s also the question of whether white voters in Mississippi would back a Black candidate for statewide office. In the years since Reconstruction, no Black Mississippian has ascended to such a role. (The 2003 defeat of Gary Anderson, a Black candidate for state treasurer, is often held up as an example of the state’s color barrier.)

And then there’s another challenge.

For most states, population growth is a slow boil. In Mississippi, it’s almost nonexistent. From 2010 to 2019, Mississippi’s overall population grew by less than 1 percent, according to census data. Only four other states grew slower, or lost overall population. During the same period, Georgia’s took off, increasing by almost 10 percent and further diversifying the state’s electorate.

Unlike in Georgia, many of Mississippi’s residents, and increasingly millennials, leave the state each year, and there are few new arrivals to replace them. That means any realignment in the state’s politics would require persuading existing residents to change their party allegiance — but there’s a question of how much ground is to be gained among conservative voters who place a high premium on candidates’ stances on abortion, taxes, guns and energy regulations.

Marvin King, a political scientist at the University of Mississippi, said that leaves Democrats in a holding pattern where their “best hope” is for Republicans to move too far to the right so that Democrats have a better chance of appealing to moderate voters.

King said of Republicans, “as long as they are able to hold on to their voters, they’re fine. But if they become too extreme, then the Democrats might be able to pick them off, one at a time, one election at a time. But quite frankly, that is like a 20-year scenario.”

Time could also narrow Republican dominance as the state’s voting makeup shifts.

“Even in Mississippi, if you look at voters under the age of 40, Democrats have a much better shot at winning,” King said. “If the electorate were only people under 40, the elections would be … a lot closer to even — but that’s a long time to wait. So if you’re a Democrat, you have to persuade.”

The ‘brain drain’ challenge

King compared what’s happening in Atlanta and its suburbs to Democratic victories in states like Illinois and Colorado, where high voter turnout in major cities that tend to be more progressive can be enough to tip the state blue.

“Virginia Democrats went through this,” he said. “Virginia was a red state. Now, northern Virginia is so big, if you can win there you can dominate the state.”

In Mississippi, there are still enough votes in Republican-leaning rural counties to eclipse even the highest turnout in Jackson, the state’s most populous Democratic stronghold and the state’s only city with at least 100,000 residents.

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The state’s “brain drain” could further compound Democrats’ woes. From 2010 to 2016, Mississippi lost the largest share of millennials in the country. Compared to older generations of voters, the group is more likely to back Democratic candidates. Not all those who leave the state skew left, but some say that many aren’t just pursuing better economic opportunities. They’re also frustrated with the state’s conservative governance.

Kaitlyn Barton, 28, who grew up in a Jackson suburb, moved to Houston in 2019. She jokes that she never switched her residence while in college at the University of Mississippi because she was determined to give her deep red county at least one Democratic vote.

Barton, who works as the dean of instruction at a charter school, is part of an influx of new residents who, alongside existing coalitions of Black and brown voters, have helped bring a blue future within closer range for Texas.

This year, she cast her ballot for Joe Biden at a local high school through early voting. And then she got angry. While election officials in her Texas county offered drive-thru voting and 24-hour polling sites, Mississippi was the only state not to offer “no excuses” early voting during the 2020 general election.

“Being able to experience that made me furious for all of the people that I love,” she said.

What do Mississippi’s Democrats stand for?

In Mississippi, Democratic organizers are once again regrouping. Some, like Adams, are thinking of lessons to take away from Georgia, where diversity worked hand-in-hand with a serious ground game led by Stacey Abrams, the former Democratic gubernatorial candidate, and other grassroots organizations, to make the state competitive.

But they face a challenge that goes beyond demographics and voter turnout — the question of what, exactly, Democrats stand for in Mississippi.

“Democrats’ fundamental problem is not population growth,” said Henry Barbour, a Republican strategist and national committeeman for the party. “Their fundamental problem is where they are on the issues.”

In Barbour’s view, Democrats in Mississippi should repudiate policies backed by more progressive wings of the national party, so that they can make inroads with the state’s more conservative voters.

Democrats have already tried this without much success. A “day in the life” ad for the party’s 2019 nominee for governor, Jim Hood, featured his family farm and pickup truck. In the 31-second spot, he described “reload ammunition” as a typical task of the day. As attorney general, Hood not only defended a state law seeking to stop abortions at 15 weeks, he told an editorial board that he would have signed subsequent legislation in the state banning the procedure at about six weeks if he were governor. But he still lost the race against then-Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, a Republican, by 5 percentage points.

Image: Voters stand in line to cast ballots in Ridgeland, Miss., on Election Day.
Voters stand in line to cast ballots in Ridgeland, Miss., on Election Day.Rogelio V. Solis / AP file

Espy took a different tack. While he spotlighted his work with former President Ronald Reagan and Sen. Thad Cochran, a Republican, and pledged to be “an independent voice in the Senate,” he didn’t shy away from the national party. At drive-thru campaign rallies, he screened video messages from former President Barack Obama and Abrams.

The back-and-forth in messaging of the Democratic Party during the last few election cycles has some party members eager to forge a bolder identity in the state. The party’s younger activists, in particular, are concerned that in pursuing white moderates, Democrats have neglected Black voters who make up the most faithful members of the party.

“Republicans have done the best job in defining us for us,” said Teresa Jones, who sits on the state Democratic Party’s executive committee and chairs the party’s Young Democrats committee.

Jones pointed out that on three ballot initiatives approved this year — selecting a design for a new state flag, approving medical marijuana and eliminating a Jim Crow-era rule aimed to keep Black citizens from the state’s top elected positions — Mississippi voters backed positions long embraced by Democrats.

The wide swath of support provides an opening for “taking back the narrative and introducing ourselves,” she said. “We do believe in rural development. We do believe in small businesses.”

The party looks ahead

Tyree Irving, who became chair of the state Democratic Party three months ago, plans to travel to each of the state’s 82 counties over the next few months and meet with local Democratic leaders and county committees to hear about the policies most important to their communities.

One of the challenges for the party, he said, is to try to engage with Mississippians who voted for the new flag design, but not Democratic candidates.

“We’ve got to figure out what happened,” he said. “Why?”

Irving suspects partisan rhetoric on the issues is one of the culprits preventing some in the state from giving the party a chance. Black and white Mississippians alike, he pointed out, have benefitted from federal support the state receives. And yet, there’s a perception that the aid benefits only Black residents. The rhetoric around social safety net programs, he said, “feeds into racial narratives that keep Black and white folks apart.”

Irving is confident that improving the party’s messaging will make a difference.

“Particularly when you break it down to the locales where people are, ‘well, here’s how much federal aid is coming into this county that you all are benefiting by,’ I think you begin to change the mindset, the way people think about it now,” he said. “I know it’s not going to happen overnight. I’m not naïve, understand that. But you will never be able to change the mindset if you don’t get the facts out there.”

There are more frustrations he has to deal with. In the past, Democratic candidates complained about disorganization, Republicans ran unopposed for several seats in the state Legislature, and fundraising, with few exceptions, was dismal. He wants to focus on supporting younger voters, whether they’re formally active in the party or not.

In the meantime, organizers like Adams aren’t sitting around waiting for an influx of left-leaning arrivals, or disillusioned moderates to cross the aisle. In recent years, Republican governors in the state have built a roster of rising stars by appointing them to vacated statewide offices. While Democrats don’t have the governor’s mansion, Adams said there are young Democrats in the state who need to be tapped for local races now to gain experience and build up trust with voters for the future.

“We can’t stay on the sidelines,” he said. “We just have to keep fighting.”