JACKSON, MS – Republican nominees for statewide offices in Mississippi appeared at a campaign rally in September, making speeches about unity and posing for smiling group photos. Democrats have not done the same, and it's unlikely that they will before Tuesday's election for governor and other positions.
The Democratic Party has been at loose ends for years in Mississippi, a conservative Deep South state where President Donald Trump is popular. Republicans hold seven of the eight statewide offices and control both chambers of the Legislature.
That lone statewide Democrat is fourth-term Attorney General Jim Hood, who has been elected with bipartisan support and is now his party's nominee in the open race for governor. He's locked in a tight contest with Republican Tate Reeves, who is finishing his second term as lieutenant governor after two terms as the elected state treasurer. Two other gubernatorial candidates are running low-budget campaigns.
Reeves is endorsed by Trump, and the president was traveling to Tupelo, Mississippi, for a rally Friday. Donald Trump Jr. campaigned for Reeves in two places Oct. 24 — at a hunting club near Hattiesburg and a barbecue in Oxford.
Hood eschews connections to national Democratic figures and promotes himself as a candidate who supports gun rights and personally opposes abortion. He even keeps his distance from most other Democrats seeking office in Mississippi, saying he continues to follow his father's advice from years ago: "'Son, you run your race and you stay out of everybody else's.'"
"It's going to be hard enough for me to win in this state," Hood said. "And I want to make sure that I represent Republicans and Democrats — because a lot of Republicans are going to vote for me."
Mississippi, Louisiana and Kentucky are the only states electing governors this year, and Mississippi has the only race without an incumbent. Because of state law, Republican Gov. Phil Bryant could not seek a third term, and he's campaigning for Reeves.
Democrats dominated Mississippi politics for generations, but for some candidates, the party label was more a matter of habit and convenience than a signifier of unity with the national party or even with other Democrats inside the state.
Republicans started rising a generation ago, when a blunt-spoken contractor named Kirk Fordice unseated a Democratic governor in 1991. The GOP has held the Governor's Mansion for all but one term since then, and it has steadily picked up other offices.
This year, the Democratic Party fielded candidates for seven statewide offices and didn't bother to challenge the Republican state auditor.
The Democrat trying to succeed Hood as attorney general is Jennifer Riley Collins, a military veteran and former executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi. She faces Republican Lynn Fitch, who's finishing her second term as state treasurer.
Collins said she is "disappointed" that Hood won't campaign with her or other Democrats. She said Democratic Party rules require the party's nominees to support each other.
"I think we are stronger together," said Collins, who is trying to become the first African American to hold statewide office in Mississippi since Reconstruction.
Collins said she has actively campaigned with two other Democrats running for statewide office — former Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny DuPree, who faces Republican state Sen. Michael Watson in the secretary of state's race; and former Mississippi Democratic Party director Rickey Cole, who is trying to unseat Republican Andy Gipson as state agriculture commissioner.
"We always lift each other up if the other person is not in the room," Collins said of her agreement with DuPree and Cole.
Some of the Republican nominees have had their differences over the years, despite the smiling photo at the unity rally. Reeves preceded Fitch as treasurer, and he criticized her handling of the state-sponsored college savings plan that he had previously managed; she said she did what was needed to keep the plan afloat.
During an Oct. 10 gubernatorial debate, Reeves endorsed Fitch as he criticized Hood's answer about not openly supporting others in his own party.
"This is how easy this is," Reeves said. "I am for the Republican nominee for attorney general, and I am for the Republican nominee in all statewide races."
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