TUPELO • On Tuesday, with the most competitive gubernatorial election in a decade-and-a-half on the ballot, Northeast Mississippi sits at the fulcrum of a political transformation that has swept nearly unabated through the state.
Jim Hood is running for governor as a Blue Dog Democrat, the sort that once dominated Deep South politics but is now almost extinct. Economic issues, education and healthcare have been his major themes.
“Politics is about your pocketbook,” Hood said in a recent interview with the Daily Journal.
In televised campaign commercials featuring wooded roads, trucks and hunting rifles, Hood has paired his policy agenda with a rural, down-home image.
Tate Reeves is running on his commitment to conservative ideology across a spectrum of issues, including tax cuts, alternatives to public schools and fidelity to President Donald Trump.
His campaign is premised on the idea that voters like what Republicans have done over the last decade with a nearly unbroken hold over state government, and want more of the same.
Reeves is completing his second term as lieutenant governor, and cannot seek a third consecutive term. He has a long record on the public policy issues that will continue to define the struggle for the state’s future.
From his perch atop the state Senate, Reeves has exerted tight control over legislation, ushering in laws that have allowed charter schools, cut taxes, restricted abortion and imposed new elementary literacy requirements.
The incumbent lieutenant governor has also played a significant role in blocking any funding package for infrastructure repairs until last year, when lawmakers dropped a longstanding reticence to allow a lottery.
Along with Gov. Phil Bryant, Reeves has also been vocal in opposition to an expansion of Medicaid.
Hood is in his fourth term as attorney general, and was before that a district attorney in Northeast Mississippi. In office, he has tangled with other Republican officeholders, but has also garnered the state numerous cash settlements from legal actions over alleged corporate wrongdoing.
On healthcare, education and infrastructure, Hood offers nearly the reverse of the Reeves agenda.
Indeed, the policy divides between them are starker than any other statewide race on the ballot and the outcome of Tuesday’s election will impact many Mississippians in diverse ways, including the kind of healthcare they receive, the education on offer to them, the roads they drive on, the taxes they pay and the job opportunities available.
Nowhere is this more pronounced than healthcare. Hood has openly touted his plan to accept an expansion of Medicaid eligibility offered to the state through the Affordable Care Act, commonly called Obamacare. Federal dollars would cover the bulk of the expansion costs.
Hood says additional money for Medicaid would boost beleaguered rural hospitals and help the working poor.
Medicaid expansion was a hot topic in the Republican primary, with the defeated candidates Bill Waller and Robert Foster both supporting a form of Medicaid expansion.
Their ideas were modeled on a proposal from the Mississippi Hospital Association. That plan was intended to make sure the state’s share of expansion costs are covered without any new spending from the state’s general fund.
Even with some Republican interest in the idea, Reeves has been adamant that he opposes any expansion of Medicaid and frames his stance as opposition to Obamacare.
He says costs will spiral and healthcare costs will rise. Thus, he is skeptical that the hospital association plan can deliver on its promises.
“The tooth fairy didn’t leave me the $220 million a year that Obamacare expansion in Mississippi is going to cost Mississippi taxpayers,” Reeves told the Daily Journal during the GOP primary race. “If you look at any other state that has expanded, their actual costs have exceeded their projections.”
Healthcare policy ideas from Reeves have focused on enticing more medical professionals into underserved rural areas.
“We need more doctors going to more rural areas,” Reeves said earlier this summer.
When asked to speak about Mississippians who may live near medical care but cannot afford it, Reeves has typically not been specific and has focused on efforts to boost job prospects in the state.
Education also divides the candidates. Hood has promised pay raises for teachers, free community college tuition for those who need it and expanded pre-kindergarten.
Reeves points to increased graduation rates in Mississippi and improved testing scores as the result of policy changes he pushed through with other GOP leaders.
He also backs additional teacher pay raises, though Hood derides this as a campaign year ploy.
Northeast Mississippi has been key to Hood’s electoral success in an ever reddening state. He needs to maintain a strong standing in the region to be competitive in Tuesday’s statewide election.
“We plan to carry Northeast Mississippi like we normally do,” Hood said in an interview. “I think us hill folk will kind of stick together and let this partisanship go to the wayside and hopefully get some changes done.”
In four statewide races, Hood has never gotten less than 55 percent of the statewide vote. Northeast Mississippi, Hood’s home region, has traditionally been a stronghold for him.
In his most recent election in 2015, Hood won every county in Northeast Mississippi except Lee and Tishomingo counties. This was a strong performance in an area that otherwise voted Republican.
However, it also represented the first time Hood has lost any counties at all in Northeast Mississippi.
In the race to secure every vote possible, the gubernatorial campaign has increasingly become rancorous and combative.
Reeves has staked out a strident message as a conservative culture warrior and warns that Hood is allied with national Democratic and liberal interests.
“I believe that we must stand up to the liberals who are doing great damage to this country,” Reeves recently said on social media platform Twitter. “Jim Hood is with them. He is totally against President Trump and conservative policies. He’s just another Democrat.”
The return fire from Hood has described Reeves as corrupt and subservient to campaign donors, lobbyists and special interests rather than everyday Mississippians.
Hood has repeatedly pledged to “drain the swamp in Jackson” and to “clean up that legislature” with a host of new ethics reforms.
Polls open Tuesday at 7 a.m. and are open until 7 p.m. Voters must present identification to cast a ballot, and various forms of identification are accepted. Any questions can be directed to the local circuit clerk of the county.