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2019 gubernatorial front-runners aren't sure things when it comes to possible voters

The present narrative says that Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and Democratic state Attorney General Jim Hood are the two top choices to battle for the governor's mansion in 2019.

That scenario isn't a stone-cold lock, according to a recent Millsaps College opinion poll of 500 Mississippians. The poll painted a picture that both likely candidates would have to sell themselves to their respective bases and could face strong primary challenges.

The poll paints the mood of the electorate as grim and anti-establishment, with 40 percent of respondents saying that they were unhappy with the state's direction.

Jim Hood

Hood, the four-term attorney general, has the advantage of name recognition and would be an improvement over the Democrats' last gubernatorial candidate, truck driver David Gray, who lost in a landslide to Gov. Phil Bryant in 2015.

With Bryant serving out the final years of his constitutionally-limited second term, the Democrats have an opportunity to end the Republicans' reign in the governor's mansion. With no other statewide-elected Democrats, Hood has the most name recognition of any potential candidate.

Millsaps College political science professor Nathan Shrader says that while Hood has popularity, he has some hurdles to climb among his base.

"Attorney General Hood is the most popular elected official that we polled, but despite many years of running for and holding his statewide position, nearly a quarter of strong Democrats are unsure of him," Shrader said. "This could mean that they literally don’t know much about him or that there is something about him or his record holding them back from making a commitment to either saying that they approve or disapprove of his performance.

"Additionally, he may have some relationship-building to do since a third of all black respondents disapprove of him, especially given the composition of the Democratic Party’s electorate in a primary election scenario."

Hood's record might be the reason why some strong Democratic voters are less than sold on him.

He claims to have earned more than $300 million in jury awards for state coffers while fighting "on behalf of Mississippians" in lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies, insurance companies, banks, tobacco companies, BP and Microsoft. To get those awards, his office has hired out-of-state law firms on contingency to go after these corporations and many of them have returned the favor. The law firms either donate directly to Hood or by way of the Democratic Attorneys General Association, which then provide contributions to the AG's campaign.

There is the perception that Hood is also soft on public corruption. In his 2015 race against Mike Hurst, now the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi, Hood blamed the Legislature for not giving his office the ability to conduct wiretap surveillance for why his office hasn't prosecuted more public corruption cases.

"They passed it, years ago, but guess who they passed it for? Drug dealers," Hood said in 2015. "We asked for it for white collar and that’s how you make a white collar case. We use the assets we have, but we don’t have many."

There's also the matter of Louisiana, which elected a Democratic governor, John Bel Edwards, after two terms of Republican Bobby Jindal. Edwards has similar positions to Hood as a socially conservative Democrat.

Edwards proposed a tax package that cut income taxes for individual taxpayers and would've eliminated Louisiana's corporate franchise tax, but would've imposed a gross receipts tax that the non-partisan Tax Foundation decried it as leading to "higher consumer prices, lower wages, and fewer job opportunities" since it is assessed at every level of production. Louisiana's Republican-led Legislature defeated Edwards' proposal, but with temporary sales tax hikes designed to shore up the state's budget issues about to expire, tax hikes could be on the table again.

Tate Reeves

Reeves is a tremendous fundraiser — with $4.3 million in his campaign account as of January — and was one of the authors of the largest tax cuts in state history, which included the phaseout of the state's corporate franchise tax. He was the first Republican treasurer in state history and the youngest. He's played a key role in expanding school choice — such as charter schools and the state's education savings account program for children with special needs.

Historically, the lieutenant governor's chair has proven to be a strong stepping stone to the state's highest office, as shown by Ronnie Musgrove in 1996 and Bryant in 2011.

Despite his long record, poll respondents were still not sure about the two-term lieutenant governor.

His popularity (38.4 percent approve of his performance) lags behind Bryant (53.5 percent approval) and his possible gubernatorial foe Hood.

Shrader said that Reeves is in danger of a foe — be it in the primary or in the general — being able to define him in a way that moves voters away from him.

"As for Lt. Governor Reeves, his relatively low approval rating indicates that despite a fairly long career in Mississippi politics, nearly 30 percent of voters don’t appear to know enough about him to reach a determination about whether they approve or disapprove and just 38 percent approve of his performance, which is 14 percent lower overall than Hood’s approval rating among the same pool of respondents," Shrader said. "His disapproval number is also seven points lower than Hood’s evaluation.

"This tells me that Reeves has considerable work to do to reintroduce himself to voters prior to 2019 — should he run for governor."

The poll was performed by Chism Strategies — a Jackson-based, left-leaning political polling and strategy firm that has done work for Obama for America and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) — and sampled 43.7 percent Republicans, 32.1 percent Democrats and 23.4 percent who identify with neither party.

The poll was also weighted "to reflect 2015 general election turnout for age, race, gender and partisanship."

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