“There’s not many groups that would get me out of a dove field on Labor Day, expect for working people,” Hood told a crowd of labor organizers and Democrats in a downtown Jackson park. “Working people have been kicked to the curb.”
Hood, first elected to the attorney general’s office in 2003, is the last Democrat still holding statewide office in Mississippi. His party has never been weaker in the state, reduced to a super-minority in the legislature and losing power in rural counties with every election this century.
Yet both parties agree that Hood is in a competitive race for the governor’s office, thanks in part to his last-moderate-standing image — he is serious about the dove hunts — and thanks to Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, the Republican who locked up his party’s nomination after an unexpectedly heated primary.
“He’s a liberal Democrat, he has been for 16 years, he continues to be, and that's okay,” Reeves said of Hood after a Tuesday visit to a supporter’s farm equipment factory near Jackson. “There are some people in Mississippi that are looking for a liberal Democrat to represent them in the governor's office. But if you are a conservative, I think that you only have one option.”
Public polling has found Reeves ahead of Hood by single digits, while Democratic polling has put the race at a tie, with Hood slightly favored. Either set of numbers represents the first real race for governor in years; last time, the Democrats were so weak that a truck driver who barely campaigned won their nomination.
Hood, who has been out-fundraised by Reeves, reintroduced himself to voters with ads about stopping “child pornographers” and going to “church on Sunday.” Reeves spent the summer fending off Bill Waller, the state’s former chief justice, and Robert Foster, a conservative state senator. Both of them endorsed the expansion of Medicaid — anathema for Republicans just a few years ago — and Waller endorsed a higher gas tax. Hood sat back and watched.
“Tate Reeves spent $3 million on just TV this summer and I spent $262,000,” Hood said. “We were ahead in June, then he spends $3 million on TV, and we're still ahead. I don't see his avenue, you know? I don't know if the pope could help him.”
Republicans see a clear path to victory for Reeves: Be a Republican. Since 2003, the party has never given up a statewide office once winning it. (It has not won the attorney general’s office since Reconstruction but is favored to in November.) The two high-water marks of Democratic strength this century were special elections for the Senate, in 2008 and 2018, when they lost by 10 and seven points. Even Democrats assume that the president will eventually endorse and rally for Reeves, and expect that to solve most of the nominee’s base issues. It happened in 2018; it would make sense if it happened again.
“What typically happens after primaries is that 90 percent of Republicans end up coming home,” said Henry Barbour, a Jackson-based lobbyist and Republican National Committee member. “The last thing the president is going to want is to lose a conservative governor’s office heading into 2020. That will bring home a lot of voters who voted for change in 2016.”
Waller’s first show of strength came at “teacher town halls,” in which he organized voters who were furious at the lieutenant governor; Reeves had snuck $2 million in school voucher funding, previously killed by the GOP’s supermajority, into an unrelated construction bill. Other Republicans experimented with euphemisms to explain why the wonkish Reeves, who won his first election before he turned 30, struggled to connect to voters like Waller or even Hood did.
“People like to vote for people who are likable,” Gov. Phil Bryant told Mississippi Today before the primary, praising Waller’s charisma and style even though he’d endorsed Reeves as his successor.
Reeves’s defeat of Waller was decisive; asked about the margins, especially in suburbs where Waller did best, Reeves emphasized that Republican turnout hit record highs. But after attacking Waller as a Democrat in disguise, Reeves watched around 46 percent of Republicans vote for his policies. (Waller told Mississippi Today this week that he would not endorse Reeves.)
That set up a theoretical path to victory for Hood. First, motivate the party’s African American base, freshly organized from Mike Espy’s unsuccessful 2018 Senate run. Next, convert the moderate Republicans who’d rejected Reeves into Democrats, by running against Reeves as an ideologue who’d cut corporate taxes while rejecting money that could save rural hospitals.
Democrats’ dislike of Reeves has, for the moment, submerged any of their qualms about Hood. In conversations around Jackson, Democrats often cited something they’d broken with Hood on — his defense of the state’s “heartbeat” antiabortion bill, his punt on questions about this summer’s raids of undocumented immigrants. Just as quickly, they said they’d be voting for Hood.
“I’m voting for him, but it’s by process of elimination,” said Patricia Ice, an attorney at the Mississippi Immigrants Right Alliance.
“Tate’s evil,” said Natalie Maynor, a retiree who’d heard Hood address the Labor Day picnic. “None of us liked Phil Bryant, but he wasn’t as horrible as the Tater Tot.”
Reeves, who said the race was “reset to zero” after the runoff, said he would happily run on conservatism, low taxes and jobs.
“This is the best economic condition Mississippi's ever been in,” Reeves said Tuesday.
But Hood, who watched Waller draw close to Reeves without running negative ads, is not planning on the same light touch. He’d talked to Waller since the runoff, he said, and was confident that he wouldn’t endorse Reeves. He was just as confident that attempts to portray him as Hillary Clinton or Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) would flop.
“I don't fit that mold,” he said. “I mean, I reload guns. I'm pro-life. People have seen my record for 16 years, so it gives a comfort level to Republicans to cross over.”
“On Labor Day, presidential candidates turn the conversation to guns,” by Cleve R. Wootson Jr. and Chelsea Janes
The 2020 Democrats returned to the trail facing a different national debate from the one they'd expected.
Flush with cash and stuck in single digits, Buttigieg is plowing everything into organizing.
Travels and conversations with the Republican-turned-independent.
“Beto O'Rourke's presidential campaign suddenly has a purpose,” by Molly Hensley-Clancy
How a flagging campaign refocused on gun control (and profanity).
“Sen. Joe Manchin III announces he won’t run for governor in West Virginia, passing on challenge to GOP incumbent,” by John Wagner and Seung Min Kim
West Virginia's most popular Democratic politician will stay in the Senate, preventing a possible succession drama in 2021.
New maps for the third time this decade.
A strategic suggestion of vulnerability: The leader in every poll could lose Iowa.
ON THE TRAIL
The coming of Hurricane Dorian had the potential to freeze the 2020 primary, with candidates who weren't already making news being sidelined by coverage of the storm. The president's personal response to the storm, however, has nudged Democrats into doing something they've only rarely tried: making fun of him. On the trail this weekend, several 2020 Democrats chastised the president, who said he was skipping a trip to Europe to monitor the storm, for playing golf.
“I think he just does not have the ability to really have a sense of empathy for people who are enduring hardship and enduring pain,” Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) told reporters. “The fact that he’s playing golf while all this is happening is not surprising.”
At a press gaggle in Iowa, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg was even harsher. “As I recall, the president said he was remaining in the U.S. to deal with the emergency,” he said. “Apparently, his idea of dealing with the emergency is to go golfing. To be fair, when he shows up in emergency zones, I'm not sure it helps or hurts, but it would be nice for him to at least show some respect for the Americans who aren't currently fleeing for their lives from evacuation zones.”
Those comments stood out because, unlike the GOP of the Obama years, the 2020 Democrats are cautious about mocking the president. Their fear, learned the hardest way in 2016, is that doing so only obscures their own messaging; the memory of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) flailing and apologizing after making fun of Trump during the Republican primary still resonates.
But recent Democratic polling has found that attacking the president as incompetent is more resonant than most ideological attacks on him. The golf mockery fits into that theory. "A Category 4 hurricane is headed toward the East Coast and Donald Trump canceled his trip so he could monitor his golf handicap," DNC Chairman Tom Perez tweeted on Labor Day, responding to a tweet about the president returning to the links.
Democrats also think the attack could sink in because Trump himself invested so much in deriding President Barack Obama's golf habit. It was a theme of his 2016 pitch, in sync with Fox News: Obama was frittering away the power of the presidency, and letting crises mount, because he retreated to the golf course to play with friends.
“I love golf,” Trump said during the campaign, “but if I were in the White House, I don't think I'd ever see Turnberry [in Scotland] again. I don't think I'd ever see Doral again; I own Doral, in Miami. I don't think I'd ever see many of the places that I have. I don't ever think that I'd see anything. I just wanna stay in the White House and work my a-- off, make great deals, right? Who's gonna leave? I mean, who's gonna leave?”
Doral, of course, is the site Trump is now pitching as a host for the next Group of 7 meeting. The activist campaign to get House Democrats lined up on impeachment made little headway in August. Democrats are far more comfortable with investigations or narratives that portray the president as a self-dealer who is playing games instead of governing. The Trump campaign didn't respond to a question about the Buttigieg and Harris attacks; he had, however, tweeted a defense of his golf habit in the process of attacking London Mayor Sadiq Khan, a frequent online enemy.
Laura Hughes contributed reporting.
Mississippi Strong, “Not Us.” The Republican Governors Association, like many Washington-based party groups, often creates election-specific committees to run advertising through. In the Reeves-Hood race, that committee is “Mississippi Strong,” which has been on the air for a month with a fairly straightforward attack ad, linking Hood to the Democrats' 2016 presidential nominee.
“Hood stood with liberals in Washington and refused to fight to stop Obamacare,” the ad says, a veiled reference to Hood's refusal to join lawsuits against the Affordable Care Act. “Hood even stood with Hillary, after she called Trump voters 'deplorable.' " Hood, a delegate for Hillary Clinton in 2016, did support her in the general election.
Andy Beshear, “My Family.” The attorney general's office is generally a good place to launch another statewide run from; see Hood's story in Mississippi. Beshear, the Democratic nominee for governor in Kentucky, centers his latest ad on his decision to join most Democratic attorneys general and defend the ACA from a lawsuit filed by a rump of Republican AGs. “I'm fighting to prevent insurance companies and the government from taking away coverage for preexisting conditions,” Beshear says, a typically wordy description of what that lawsuit — a political time bomb for Republicans — is designed to do.
Which gun control measures do you favor? (Quinnipiac, 1,422 registered voters)
Universal background checks — 93%
Requiring a license to purchase a gun — 82%
“Red flag” laws — 80%
Assault weapons ban — 60%
Mandatory buyback of assault weapons — 46%
The campaign for “background checks” has repeatedly emphasized just how popular the idea is, as a way to warn opponents of what could happen to them at the polls if they reject it. But this poll, taken after the shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio, but before this past weekend's shooting, found generic, high support for nearly every liberal gun control proposal. Even the “buybacks,” so easily characterized as “gun grabbing,” had just 49 percent of registered voters opposed to them — more than enough to scare off swing- district Democrats, but not as high as the public opposition to a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, the purchase of Greenland or a ban on private health insurance.
IN THE STATES
Colorado. State legislator Mike Johnston, an early entrant in the race against Republican Sen. Cory Gardner, abandoned his bid Tuesday, saying he would not want to go negative against former governor John Hickenlooper.
Minnesota. Republicans recruited former lieutenant governor Rebecca Fischbach to challenge Democratic Rep. Collin Peterson, whose western Minnesota district is now the most rural and most Republican represented by any Democrat; Barack Obama lost it by 10 points, and Hillary Clinton lost it by 31 points. Fischbach, who briefly held her statewide office after Democrat Tina Smith was elevated to the Senate, reintroduced herself to voters as a Trump loyalist, attacking Peterson for voting to “ban the wall.”
Pennsylvania. Lou Barletta, the four-term congressman who presaged northeast Pennsylvania's swing toward the GOP, will not challenge the state's most vulnerable Democrat, Rep. Matt Cartwright. Barletta told the Times Leader that he would not “close the door” on future runs for office — he's 63 — but would focus for now on launching a consulting firm. The 2018 court decision that reshaped Pennsylvania's maps put Cartwright in a seat that backed the president by nine points, after backing Barack Obama by 12, but the populist Cartwright won a new term last year by 10 points.
Mark Sanford. He extended his timeline for a decision on whether to run for president, citing the need for his home state to prepare for hurricane damage. "As governor he dealt with many storm preparations, and given the gravity of this storm, he encourages residents along the East Coast to pay heed to the warnings and declarations of state and county emergency operation teams," his spokeswoman Sarah Allred said Monday.
Elizabeth Warren. She scrapped a trip to South Carolina because of the hurricane; she had intended to hold a town hall in Orangeburg with Rep. Jim Clyburn, the House sponsor of her student debt-relief bill.
Cory Booker. He released his own Climate and Environmental Justice Plan ahead of tomorrow's CNN climate town halls, with its own moonshot budget and annual goals: $3 trillion in renewable energy over 10 years and a carbon-neutral economy by the year 2045.
Bernie Sanders. His sit-down with Ady Barkan, the health justice activist with ALS, was the first to be published; in it, Sanders speaks more openly than usual about fatherhood and his relationship with his family, before arguing that Medicare-for-all can be passed via a grass-roots pressure campaign.
Julián Castro. He released his pre-town hall climate plan, People & Planet First, which calls for $10 trillion in renewable investment and transition funds and net zero emissions by 2045, with a 50 percent cut in emissions by 2030.
Marianne Williamson. She's spending Tuesday and Wednesday campaigning around Las Vegas; on Twitter, she has stepped up her criticism of the DNC “gatekeepers” for setting debate access standards that have cut her and nine other candidates from the September event in Houston.
Kamala Harris. She won over Uncle Luke, a rapper who had been critical of her, in a private phone conversation.
Tim Ryan. He's continuing a long swing through South Carolina, holding meetings with Democrats through Thursday.
WHAT I'M WATCHING
The Warren/Sanders cold war. Bernie Sanders refuses to attack Elizabeth Warren. Elizabeth Warren refuses to attack Bernie Sanders. “We've been friends forever,” she repeated, for the umpteenth time, to reporters with her on Labor Day in New Hampshire.
But we're nine days out from the first debate that will put Sanders, Warren and Joe Biden on the same stage, and the attacks on Warren are already being beta-tested. The ones to watch:
Warren the hawk. After 2016, Warren joined the Senate Armed Services Committee; from there, she supported the 2018 defense budget, which Sanders voted against. (Both candidates voted against the 2019 budget.) That's one in a series of Warren decisions that have put her closer to the Democrats' interventionist mainstream than Sanders (I-Vt.), who worked after his 2016 run to hone his critique of military adventurism and America's approach toward Venezuela and Israel. Sanders supporters confidently argue that their candidate would break from the Washington consensus on foreign policy but Warren, like Barack Obama, would continue it; see the semi-viral video that mashes up Warren's goofy, feather-boa'd jog around a gay pride parade with images of violence in the Middle East.
Warren the Medicare-for-all scab. With Sens. Cory Booker and Kamala Harris amending their Medicare-for-all endorsements to say they'd prefer to phase in single-payer health care more slowly, Warren is the only 2020 Democrat who hasn't muddled her support for Sanders's bill. Of the 10 Democrats who will be onstage next week, only Warren and Sanders have endorsed the eventual abolition of the for-profit insurance industry. But Warren often skips past the term “Medicare-for-all,” and there's a constant lookout for evidence that she's buckling.
A Sept. 1 tweet from Warren, which linked to a video of her telling an Asian American news network that she wants the government to make generic drugs ("if the market isn't working, then the government should manufacture it"), described her approach as “improving access to health care.” Since “access” is often used by Medicare-for-all opponents, that was a red flag to Warren critics; the replies to that tweet largely consist of people saying she has revealed that she won't change the health-care system.
Warren the Republican. It's part of the senator's origin story: She never intended to run for office and would have been happy in academia. Part of that story, well told since her political career began eight years ago, is that she was a Republican voter until 1996, when she was 47 years old. (Ronald Reagan, the most famous party-switcher to win the presidency until Donald Trump, was 51 when he abandoned the Democrats.)
Warren rarely gets into detail about her Republican years. Friends have described her as personally conservative; asked about which votes she cast, she said she supported Jimmy Carter over Ronald Reagan and Michael Dukakis over George H.W. Bush. But Warrenworld increasingly expects her opponents to ask how she could have stayed inside the party during the Reagan era, when Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders were, respectively, leading a resistance in the Senate and attacking the president's foreign and domestic policy from Burlington. An offhand comment from Susan Sarandon at a Sanders event (“He's not someone who used to be a Republican”) resounded in Democratic circles.
Most of the could-be hits on Warren would come from further to her left. The party loyalty attack could come from anywhere.
… one day until CNN's climate town halls
… seven days until the special election in North Carolina's 9th Congressional District
… nine days until the third Democratic debates