Black vote in Mississippi sends positive sign for economic gains in Southern states

Mississippi has never elected a Black for statewide office since Reconstruction, despite having the nation’s largest percentage of people of color living in the state. 

For two decades, the Magnolia State also hasn’t elected a white Democratic Governor though Brandon Presley got very close this year, less than 1 percentage point away from a runoff against Republican Governor Tate Reeves.

In a state where 62% of Mississippians identify as Republican, Reeves scored less than 51 percent of the final vote, a stunningly close outcome in a state often left for dead (and red) by national Democrats.  

What accounts for the implosion in the GOP’s Mississippi numbers, and is it a fluke or part of a trend that might give Democrats some hope of making further gains, not just in Mississippi but in other Southern states largely controlled by Republicans.

While some point to Reeve’s challenges with a burgeoning welfare scandal, and a general lack of enthusiasm among Republican voters for a Governor they’ve nicknamed “Tater Tot,” there are deeper reasons for the strong showing by Presley.

Since Republicans took control of the statehouse in 2003 when Haley Barbour kicked the Democrats out of the Governor’s office, life has gotten demonstrably, dramatically worse for Black Mississippians at the lower end of the economic scale.

Over that time, the gap in household income between Mississippi and the US widened from $13,610 to over $23,000 today.  The overall rates, though, don’t tell the whole story. There’s a stark racial divide. Poverty levels for Black families range from 28 percent to 68 percent in Mississippi; for whites, it’s much lower, 4 to 14 percent. Similar racial divide in employmentState funding for poverty programs are at an all-time low

With hardly any incentives to stay, businesses began abandoning rural areas where most Blacks live in Mississippi. Some communities in the Delta look like ghost towns today, Greenville, Clarksdale, and Yazoo City to name a few.

Few jobs and fewer good-paying jobs are driving young people out of their hometowns and home state, looking for employment elsewhere. Rural hospitals are suffering, public schools need new books and more resources, and roads and other public utilities are deteriorating

The Black communities largely in the Delta face the danger of being washed away not just by the floods of the Mississippi River, where they mostly live, but by a tidal wave of poverty that has lasted for generations. 

Presley’s performance — pulling 47.7% in a state where Democrats make up 38% of voters — suggests that exhaustion with Mississippi’s perennial standing at 49th or 50th place in indicators of everything from economics to health to education may finally be catching up to the Republican machine.

Incredibly, Presley flipped three traditional Republican strongholds, including Forrest County (Hattiesburg), a development that should have Democrats looking at what Presley did right, and how the next Democrat can achieve a statewide win — a prospect that no longer seems unthinkable.  

Yet, a day after Presley’s loss, state political commentators began speculating widely that Democrats in the Magnolia State have reached their “ceiling” of all Mississippians who will vote for their candidates and that Republicans have a “firewall” of counties that guarantees victory. That’s a flawed analysis that fails to take into account Mississippi’s deep pool of untouched African American voters. 

After back-to-back wins by Haley Barbour, Phil Bryant, and Tate Reeves, Blacks felt, in part, their votes no longer mattered. White Democratic candidates did little to convince them otherwise and instead focused on shifting white votes.

Presley, though, campaigned in all 82 counties and connected with African American leaders in the predominantly Black areas. Using part of his impressive $12 million war chest — the most ever raised by a Democrat — he also invested significantly in grass roots voter contact. In places like Mississippi, advertising, social media and robo-calls will only get you so far.

None of it is a substitute for good old-fashion door knocking. Talking to voters porch by porch, living room by living room – especially Black households – over a sustained period of time by the candidate and local supporters, is a key part of how Democrats can get those final percentage points.  

Twenty-three Mississippi counties have a 50 percent or more Black population. If Presley decides to run again, or another Democrat decides to enter the race, they’re going to need a record turnout from those counties. Growing support among people of color, including Hispanics, Native Americans, and mixed-race, will not cause Presley’s white supporters to vanish if his message stays focused on kitchen table issues.

Democrats should start to visit those kitchen tables — and porches and living rooms — now, not just four years from now during an election season. 

Time will tell if electing a Democrat as Governor will improve the salaries, jobs, and health of Black Mississippians, but right now no serious strategies exist for helping people of color and low-income families. 

If Democrats stay as focused on the Black communities lining the banks of the Mississippi River as on the mostly white counties by the beaches near Biloxi, they might just pull off the unthinkable and carry a Democratic Governor back to Jackson. 

— Karen Hinton was the press secretary for the former Mississippi Congressman Mike Espy and a volunteer for Espy’s U.S. Senate races. She also was a press secretary for other Democrats in Washington, D.C. and New York City.

Get Insightful, Cutting-Edge Content Daily - Join "The Neo Jim Crow" Newsletter!

We don’t spam! Read our privacy policy for more info.

Get Insightful, Cutting-Edge, Black Content Daily - Join "The Neo Jim Crow" Newsletter!

We don’t spam! Read our [link]privacy policy[/link] for more info.

Get Insightful, Cutting-Edge, Black Content Daily - Join "The Neo Jim Crow" Newsletter!

We don’t spam! Read our [link]privacy policy[/link] for more info.

This post was originally published on this site