Will Mississippi Elect a Black Republican for the First Time since Reconstruction?

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Rodney Hall Campaign Photo, Ballotpedia

Mississippi is the most racially polarized state in the country (in terms of voting). It’s the only state where Donald Trump got over 80% of the white vote, and Trump also hit his lowest mark among Black voters–5% according to the exit polls, and, honestly, looking at precinct data, that 5% might be high.

Mississippi isn’t just racially polarized in voting patterns; it’s also polarized in elected officials. Every statewide and legislative elected Republican is white. Every Mayor and local official (except one, which we’ll get to later) that we can find is too, though we haven’t checked every single office in the state.

There are some white Democrats in the state, but they’re few and far between. Of the 42 Democrats elected to the State House in 2019, only three are white (there are also three moderate former Democrats who serve as Independents in the House; one of whom is white). Only one of those three is running in 2023, though, and while there are a few slight opportunities to add to their number, there will likely only be one white Democrat in the House next year. Of the 16 Democrats in the State Senate, only two are white. Both are running for reelection, though one (in a Republican-leaning seat) does face a primary challenge.

Republican history in Mississippi

After the Civil War, during Reconstruction, most of the Mississippi Republican Party was Black–like throughout the rest of the South. That remained the case most of the time for the next century, though Jim Crow and other voting restrictions severely limited Black representation. In fact, for much of the 20th century, every single member of the Mississippi legislature was a Democrat. Republicans started winning seats in the 1960s and 1970s, but it was white candidates. And by the time the state became Republican in the 1990s, the vast majority of Black voters were Democrats, not Republicans. (The shift of Black voters from Republican to Democratic, that slowly began in the 1930s and rapidly took off in the 1960s is well-document elsewhere.)

In fact, since the end of the post-Reconstruction era (some Black candidates in Mississippi were able to win elections until the 1890s), no Black candidate (of either political party) has won a statewide election. Since the Civil Rights Act, Black candidates have won plenty of races at local and legislative levels–but basically all of them have been Democrats.

In fact, as far as we can find, the highest office a Black Republican has been elected to in Mississippi since the 1890s was Yvonne Brown, who was elected Mayor of the small town of Tchula. Tchula had about 2,300 people at the time, and is almost entirely Black and Democratic. Brown won by a small margin mostly due to local frustrations with the city’s Democrats–and because with George W Bush as President, she was able to bring in major investments and stimuli as Mississippi and national Republicans tried to use her as a poster child to increase Black support for Republicans.

Of course, those efforts, like most similar efforts from Republicans in recent history, didn’t bear much fruit. And while there have been a few serious Black candidates running as Republicans in the last few decades, no one has managed to break through. Well, that could change in 2023.

Recent Efforts to Recruit Black Voters

Last October, the Mississippi GOP announced a Minority Outreach Committee to try to increase its share with Black voters.

If we’re being honest, quite simply, the event was a failure. The party got a whopping 20 Black attendees to even listen to the event. Attending wasn’t a commitment to voting or being Republican. But the state party didn’t put any money into it, didn’t get much coverage in either local conservative or Black media, and didn’t get people to show up. It didn’t look like a good outcome for the Republican party.

In December, though, the Mississippi GOP did manage to pull off a victory in this area. Biloxi Councilmember Felix Gines switched parties, in a move hailed by Governor Tate Reeves and attended by the state party chairman. But would that move take Gines or Mississippi Republicans anywhere? That remains to be seen.

2023 Elections

In a move that seemed set up by the Mississippi GOP (though no one has admitted it), Randall Patterson–the State Representative from District 115) chose not to run for re-election. Gines, who lost to Patterson by about 4.5% in 2019, quickly filed for election as a Republican. When no one else filed, it seemed clear that the Mississippi Republicans were giving Gines a seat as thanks for his party switch–and with no Democrats filing either, he looked ready to walk into the seat.

However, the Mississippi GOP still couldn’t get out of its own way. On the final two days of filing, two other Republicans filed for the seat. And, as the race has developed, both are running serious campaigns. All three candidates have serious enough fundraising to run local ads, and it would not be surprising to see any of the three come out on top. We’ll come back to some of the details of this race later, but for now let’s remember that Mississippi has primary runoffs if no candidate gets over 50% of the vote. In most races with three serious candidates, a runoff is always a possibility.

While the Mississippi GOP may have failed in its attempt to orchestrate a Black candidate winning a seat, it may succeed organically anyway. Rodney Hall, a veteran who was featured in the Minority Outreach Committee kickoff mentioned above, filed to run in District 20. There is no Democrat running in District 20, so the Republican primary winner will win the seat–and it has been quite a fascinating campaign so far.

Hall is running against Charlie Hoots, an alderman from Southhaven. This is one of the more interesting races in the state so far. Both candidates have done serious fundraising and are running local ads, and both tout endorsements from a serious number of local and state figures. They are each running serious conservative campaigns and try to tout their conservative bona fides.

That’s interesting in its own right, because Mississippi is an open primary state. The district is over 35% Black, and there are no real contested Democratic primaries on the ballot in the district. Black voters in this district, who almost always vote Democratic, could choose to vote to send the first Black Republican to the legislature since the 1890s. However, as far as we can find from the internet, neither candidate is specifically trying to win the local Black vote. In a (sad, yes) way, this makes sense. It’s a two-man race, Black voters are more liberal, and this district has a white conservative majority. With voting so racially polarized in the district (and the state), any appeal to the Black voters risks alienating the majority. Still, it will be interesting to see how many Black voters choose to vote in this Republican primary, and if they support Hall in any meaningful way.

This brings a fascinating contrast to the District 115 race. That district is only about 25% Black, but all three candidates are courting Black voters. In fact, the three of them attended a candidate debate hosted by the Biloxi NAACP. The debate was interesting in its own right, but all three candidates very clearly took positions in line with the audience. I don’t know what percentage of Mississippi white conservatives are in favor of celebrating Juneteenth and getting rid of Confederate Heritage Day, for example, but all three candidates took that position. Perhaps it speaks to the candidates themselves, or it speaks to the nature of the race–if they let Gines take up all 25% of the Black vote plus the 9% or so Hispanic vote in the district, it all but guarantees Gines a run-off spot. And with the support Gines has from parts of the state GOP, that could make him almost a prohibitive favorite to win outright.

As it stands, neither Hall nor Gines is close to guaranteed to breaking the Mississippi GOP’s drought with Black candidates. If we had to handicap the races, Hall is probably a very slight favorite in his, while Gines is probably likely to advance to the runoff (with Grady, whose campaign seems more active and aggressive than Harding’s), where things reset to a 50-50 shot. It seems like there’s a solid chance that at least one of them can win, though it wouldn’t be surprising if both fall short.

Other Candidates

There are two other Black candidates running campaigns for the Mississippi House of Representatives, though neither seems likely to be competitive. Progeorlan Walker is a small business owner and local faith leader who started out the campaign on pretty strong footing with the two other contenders in the race (Kimberly Remak and James Goodkind), but as the race has gone on the major support and money seems to have gone to the other two candidates, especially Remak. But with the district being almost 30% Black and Walker likely being somewhat well-known in the local Black community, there’s a chance he gets enough support to make it to a runoff. Remak winning it in one round wouldn’t be too surprising, though, and neither Walker not making the runoff.

Lastly, Raymond Brooks is running in District 114. Brooks ran for Congress in 2022, winning almost 5% of the vote. He actually fundraised decently in that race, and likely he tried to continue that against an incumbent who didn’t put any money or campaigning into the race until a few months in. Still, as the campaign has gone on, incumbent Greg Haney has spent plenty and put enough into events and ads that he should be safe, while Brooks’ fundraising has dried up. Like Districts 20 and 115, 7 and 118 aren’t contested by Democrats, so the Republican nominee will win the seat.

One last note about all of these races: legislative turnout in Mississippi–especially in primaries–is usually very low. That means that more often than not, voter contacts and direct outreach have far more of an impact than in larger races. And, of course, those factors are difficult to gauge from afar. Now, American elections across the board–even lower-profile ones–have seen higher engagement and higher turnout in the past few years. It remains to be seen if that will occur in these races and if that will impact the style of campaigning. Either way, Mississippi Republicans have a chance to try to make history and (they hope) inroads with Black voters. Then again, no matter how much some Mississippi Republicans say they want to do minority outreach, how much do they really need it? After all, racially polarized voting in a state where your party has the majority will work out most of the time anyway.

Main Photo Credit: Ballotpedia

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