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The Southern state where Black voters are gaining in numbers, but not power

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Cindy Hyde-Smith

After fracturing over the past decade, political alliances have settled along racial lines because of defections of white Democrats. About 90 percent of white people in the state vote Republican, a higher share of conservative white voters than any other state, according to Tom Bonier, CEO of TargetSmart, a Democratic data firm.

“What we’re seeing is that our politics is no longer red and blue,” said Jared Turner, a political strategist who worked on Democrat Mike Espy’s failed Senate campaign in Mississippi last year. “It’s Black and white.”

Mississippi does have a growing non-white population in common with Georgia. The share of nonwhite Mississippi residents is expected to reach 46 percent in 2030, according to the State Data Center in Mississippi. But demography often isn’t enough for Democrats to turn Southern states into presidential battlegrounds.

For starters, Mississippi lacks key features that have put Georgia and a handful of other Southern states in play: bustling metropolitan areas with an influx of highly-educated, liberal professionals and a booming economy with an array of high-paying jobs. While states such as Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas are becoming more competitive, it takes a unique combination of factors to flip a state blue. And as the results of the presidential election in Florida showed, political loyalties can shift among communities of color, so there’s no guarantee for Democrats even when demographics appear to be moving in their favor.

Trouble in rural areas

In Mississippi and many other states, the most daunting challenge for Democrats is the near-wholesale rejection of the party by rural voters.

The party is still reeling from down-ballot losses in congressional and state house races even as Joe Biden won the presidency. Democrats spent millions of dollars in an attempt to flip seats in deep red states with little to show for it.

To notch statewide Democratic wins in the near future, two things will need to happen in Mississippi: More white voters will need to cross over, and there will need to be explosive turnout from Black voters, who have become increasingly disillusioned with Democrats.

“We’re not a one-party state, but it isn’t easy for Democrats to win statewide or in large sections of the state,” said former Republican Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour. “Our state is a good deal harder than Georgia for Democrats.”

White Mississippians have fled the Democratic Party since the state House and Senate flipped to Republican majorities in 2011. The trend has accelerated during the Trump administration. Just five of 44 Democrats in the state House, which elects members in odd years, are white. Two white lawmakers switched their party allegiance from Democrat to independent last year, saying they were looking out for their moderate districts, both of which are majority Black.

Just two of the 16 Democrats in the state Senate are now white.

Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith, Mississippi’s junior senator, was a Democratic state Senator until she ran as a Republican for agriculture commissioner about a decade ago.

The most difficult problem in Mississippi is race,” said Tyree Irving, who last year was elected the first Black chairman of the Mississippi Democratic party in a quarter-century. “When I was describing the relationship between white Democrats and Black Democrats in recent years, race looms large in that situation.”

The previous six Democratic party chairman have been white, according to Mississippi Today, a local non-profit news organization. Many in the party, such as Rep. Robert L. Johnson III, think the party’s past appeals to moderate white voters failed. Irving’s win with two-thirds of the Democratic executive committee members was an implicit acknowledgment that a new approach is needed.

In 2019, for example, Democrat Jim Hood, then the state’s attorney general, ran for governor with a campaign that showed off his conservative credentials: namely, his pro-gun, anti-abortion stance. He lost to Republican Tate Reeves by nearly 6 points.

The losses by Hood and Espy exposed an existential challenge in Mississippi, said Brannon Miller, a Democratic strategist in the state. Broadly speaking, when the party tries to win over white voters, it loses Black ones. When a candidate goes after Black votes, it loses white ones.

“It’s like playing whack a mole,” Miller said.

‘I’m not into moral victories. We lost.’

Unlike Georgia, North Carolina and Texas, Mississippi hasn’t experienced explosive population growth that’s shifted the political balance of power. There isn’t a surfeit of big cities and suburbs or major corporations. Tort reform all but killed the state Democratic party’s major donor base. And widespread poverty has made small-dollar fundraising challenging, as out-of-state donors rarely put money into what they see as long-shot bids.

Even when out-of-state donors do open up their wallets, Democrats still lose statewide.

Espy raised $12 million for his Senate campaign compared with $3.3 million by Hyde-Smith, according to federal election data. Polls showed him within striking distance of the Republican incumbent.

But when Espy arrived to vote at 7 a.m. on Nov. 3 at a church in Ridgeland, and saw a line of mainly white, unmasked voters wrapped around the parking lot, he knew he was going to lose.

Espy outperformed Biden, who lost Mississippi by 16.5 percentage points, and made inroads in three predominately white suburban counties. He won more votes than Barack Obama did in the state in 2012. But he still lost to Hyde-Smith by 10 percentage points.

“I’m not into moral victories,” Espy said. “We lost.”

Espy said that much of the money he raised came in the months before the election, which wasn’t enough time to build out the infrastructure that a Democrat needs to win the state. Republicans, however, were motivated early on to show up for Donald Trump.

“Trump just gave the order for his base to turn out. We saw more voters turn out in Mississippi, and they were aligned against the Democratic Party brand,” Espy said in his first interview since the election.

To illustrate his point, he described three progressive ballot initiatives — a measure legalizing medical marijuana, one approving a state flag design without the Confederate Battle Flag, and one removing a hurdle for people running for state office. All three initiatives passed the same day he lost.

“If you told me that all three of those would have passed handily and I would have lost by 130,000 votes, I wouldn’t have believed it,” said Espy, who in 1987 became the first African American from Mississippi to serve in Congress since Reconstruction.

“Me as an emblem of the Democratic brand wasn’t acceptable in this environment.”

‘Democrats allowed themselves to become an urban party’

Mississippi is one of the only states in the South to lose population during the past two years because of the lack of jobs, according to the Mississippi Center for Public Policy. Georgia and Texas, on the other hand, are two of the fastest-growing states in the country.

Immigration has grown in Mississippi, but not enough to significantly shift the state’s political landscape, as it did in Georgia. Around 2.4 percent of Mississippi’s population was born in another country, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

One political outlier is DeSoto County, tucked in in the northwestern corner of the state, which has become a bedroom community for people who work across the border in relatively liberal Memphis, Tenn. In 2019, Democratic state Rep. Hester Jackson McCray beat her Republican opponent by 14 votes, becoming the first Black person to represent the majority white county. DeSoto still voted for Trump this November, but it ranked 80th out of 3,006 counties that swung towards Democrats, said Bonier.

Democratic strategist James Carville said that the party’s challenges in Mississippi point to broader problems within the party. Democrats aren’t reaching the rural population, white or Black.

“The problem is that Democrats allowed themselves to become an urban party,” he said. “In a state with not many urban centers it makes it difficult. Until we’re able to have some broader appeal we’re going to be relegated to being an urban party.”

‘It’s not about the color of anybody’s skin.’

Irving, the state Democratic chair, said he thinks there’s an appetite for progressive ideas in Mississippi, pointing to the success of the ballot initiatives and Espy’s strength compared to Biden’s.

Nearly 20 percent of Mississippians live in poverty, the highest in the country, according to the U.S. Census. Health and educational outcomes have been dismal. The pandemic has left a trail of devastation across the state: More than 4,000 people have died and hundreds of thousands have filed for unemployment assistance since March.

Irving said the party needs to move left and lean into its Black base of support rather than taking their votes for granted. His goal isn’t to alienate white voters, but rather embrace an agenda that appeals to a broader group of Black voters in the state.

“It is an insult to think or suggest that Black Democrats should do more to elect white Democrats to statewide office without the white candidate putting forth a policy agenda that addresses the needs and concerns of Black Democrats,” Irving said in a follow-up email.

He’s focused on turning out Black voters — and some younger white voters — by talking about issues like reducing student loan burdens and building a bench of local Black lawmakers who are ready to run statewide. But he said the party also needs to counter a narrative that Democrats want to take money from white people to give to Black people, or that Black people disproportionately receive benefits in the state.

“You have Southern politicians, and white Democrats in years past were guilty as well, they have fed white Mississippians a racial diet — three meals a day of it — to keep poor and average middle-income Mississippians separated along racial lines,” Irving said.

He’s also got to rebuild a local party infrastructure. Espy’s campaign left behind voter data and a volunteer network that Irving hopes to build in the coming years.

A hollowed-out state party

Starting local rather than focusing on high-profile statewide races will be the key to eventually breaking Republican dominance in Mississippi, said Rep. Bennie Thompson, the lone Mississippi Democrat in Congress and the longest serving African American elected official in the state.

Thompson said the state party has been hollowed out over years. Even the party headquarters was run down until a few years ago. The party needs to rebuild brick by brick, he said, a task that will require investment and attention from national Democrats.

Irving “understands that you have to build that infrastructure locally if you expect to win statewide or nationally,” Thompson said.

“I’m a realist,” he said. “It’s not a two- or three-round fight. It might be a two-year or three-year fight, but we’re fighting.”

One of Irving’s first goals is to oust Greenwood’s popular incumbent mayor, Carolyn McAdams, in June. More than 73 percent of the population of Greenwood, Irving’s hometown and the site of Emmitt Till’s death, is Black. McAdams is white. McAdams was first elected in 2009, beating incumbent Sheriel Perkins, Greenwood’s first Black mayor. She’s been reelected repeatedly as an independent.

“I hope people see I am fair,” said McAdams. “It’s not about the color of anybody’s skin.”

But local Democratic youth activist Robert Wilson Jr. said that he thinks she’s been in office too long. Like Irving, he wants to replace her with a progressive Democrat.

“She’s a great person, but sometimes just being a great person isn’t enough,” said Wilson. “She lost touch with things going on in actual communities.”

Wilson said that after Irving first got elected to serve as state party chair, Irving sent him an email inviting him to an online meeting. It was the first time the state party had sought him out.

“The previous chairman, I would reach out to him and nothing would ever come of it,” said Wilson. Now he feels “a little bit of optimism” that the state Democratic party is finally paying attention to younger voters and local elections.

Irving knows it’s an uphill battle in the deeply conservative state. But he’s setting his sights on flipping at least one statewide office in 2023.

“I know how that may sound, given Mississippi’s history — that a Black man in Mississippi thinks he can provide a path towards a blue state,” said Irving. “But I’m not smoking anything funny.”

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Zuckerberg: Facebook to stop recommending political groups in bid to ‘turn down the temperature’

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Zuckerberg: Facebook to stop recommending political groups in bid to 'turn down the temperature'

A clampdown on political amplification: During the company’s fourth-quarter earnings call on Wednesday, Zuckerberg called the decision “a continuation of work we’ve been doing for a while to turn down the temperature and discourage divisive conversations.”

The Facebook chief also said the company is considering taking new steps to limit the amount of political content users see in its News Feed.

“Politics has kind of had a way of creeping into everything, and I think lot of … the feedback that we see from our community is that people don’t want that in their experience,” Zuckerberg said on the call with investors.

Under pressure: Tech companies are facing immense political scrutiny for the role social media platforms played in the insurrection at the Capitol.

Dozens of Democrats last week called on Facebook and other social media companies to overhaul their recommendations and algorithms to reduce the spread of incendiary, divisive and violent content on their platforms. The lawmakers railed against the companies, saying that by creating a “digital echo chamber,” they had contributed to the radicalization of those who stormed the Capitol.

“Perhaps no single entity is more responsible for the spread of dangerous conspiracy theories at scale or for inflaming anti-government grievance than the one that you started and that you oversee today as Chairman and Chief Executive Officer,” they wrote in a letter to Zuckerberg.

The issue has also drawn bipartisan concern. A group of Senate Republicans and Democrats in 2019 teamed up on legislation to require platforms to give users the option of experiencing sites without algorithmic recommendations.

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Black Veterans’ group calls for representation at VA

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Black Veterans' group calls for representation at VA

The letter comes as Veteran’s Affairs Secretary-designate Denis McDonough is scheduled to testify at a confirmation hearing on Wednesday afternoon. McDonough, a former chief of staff and deputy national security adviser under President Obama, said in an op-ed for the Military Times that he is committed to revitalizing the department, particularly as it relates to its ability to address the health concerns of an aging veteran population. Still, his nomination vexed a number of veterans’ advocacy organizations, whose leaders said they would prefer a veteran be picked for the job.

The Department of Veterans’ Affairs has been weathered by a number of internal staffing and regulatory issues. In addition to its track record of quick turnovers in top staff positions under President Donald Trump, the agency has faced accusations of retaliation against employees who have reported instances of malfeasance under the Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act.

The group, however, said that a large number of the issues at the VA disproportionately impact veterans of color.

The push to install Black leaders at the VA comes on the heels of Biden’s first series of executive orders advancing racial equity — an issue that minority-led organizations across the issue advocacy spectrum have been especially attuned to. Victor LaGroon, the president of the Black Veterans Empowerment Council and the letter’s sole signer, pointed to the role that voters of color played in securing Democratic wins up and down the ballot. Given the large number of Black veterans who were part of that group, he said, they should be represented both in top cabinet positions and mid-level staff.

“It is great to see the general [Defense Secretary Lloyd] Austin was recently approved and appointed and sworn in,” LaGroon said in an interview. “But that’s one person who will now be working at SecDef. How many people under him will be men of color?”

Member organizations within the council supported the letter on behalf of disabled, woman and LGBTQ veterans. They expressed concern about patterns of discrimination against their members in the past and optimism about improvements to the Veterans’ Affairs Department under President Joe Biden. LaGroon said he is optimistic that the new administration will heed their suggestions and plan to present officials with suggestions for who they feel should fill those roles.

The group also expressed concerns about the patterns of discrimination against Black veterans in their letter. Racial inequities within the department are often swept under the rug when there are few people of color in leadership positions, it argues.

“There’s always been deficits as far as representation across the board,” LaGroon said. “Whether it’s from clinicians, where veterans are getting primary and specialty care, whether it’s a difference in the quality of care that veterans get… obviously, some VA centers or hospitals are better than others.”

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A top MAGA gathering finds life complicated after Trump

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A top MAGA gathering finds life complicated after Trump

Senior Trump adviser Jason Miller said that Trump, whose Mar-a-Lago abode is less than 2.5 hours away from the Orlando hotel where this year’s conference will occur on Feb. 25-28, is not currently scheduled to make an appearance. Meanwhile, a senior American Conservative Union official would not answer whether Pence, who drew MAGA world’s ire for certifying Joe Biden’s election, had been invited to speak at this year’s conference. A spokesperson for the former vice president did not respond to a request in time for publication.

ACU chairman Matt Schlapp said he is convinced this year’s conference will be no different from past years. “CPAC is going great,” he told POLITICO on Tuesday, before then saying that his quote needed to be attributed without his name. Schlapp did not address questions about why some sponsors were not continuing their CPAC sponsorship. But after those questions were posed and additional questions were sent to CPAC sponsors — including whether the Jan. 6 Capitol riots impacted their thinking about sponsoring again this year — ACU General Counsel David Safavian accused POLITICO of “tortious interference with business relationships” and attempting “to ‘cancel’ both CPAC and the American Conservative Union itself.” The group then tweeted a copy of a letter from Safavian that included a litigation threat.

“We fully intend to explore our legal rights to hold Politico fully accountable for what we see as tortious conduct,” the letter stated.

How well CPAC goes this year will provide one of the first public indications about the health of the MAGA movement with Trump out of office and with the Republican Party divided over just how loyal to the former president it should be.

One year ago, CPAC was in a far different place. The 2020 gathering was, for a brief moment, a crowning achievement for the conference’s organizer, Schlapp. Delivering a 90-minute, chest-beating victory speech, Trump showed up to hype his survival of his first impeachment. Vice President Mike Pence came as well. Indeed, more than 30 Trump aides and officials in all spoke at the conference, ranging from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to senior White House advisers Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump.

But within days, the appearances were overshadowed by news that an attendee who’d been in direct contact with Schlapp had tested positive for Covid-19. Organizers were forced to warn nearly 100 conference-goers of potential exposure and the president’s chief of staff went into self-quarantine, though only one actual case ended up being traced to the event.

The pandemic is even more of a complicating issue this year, compelling Schlapp to move the event to Florida precisely because there are fewer restrictions on such gatherings in that state. Whether guest speakers will follow him down there will determine much of the conference’s success.

A full agenda and list of speakers will be posted two to three weeks before the conference begins, according to the CPAC website, but several past speakers contacted by POLITICO said they were still deciding whether to attend given the added distance and the possibility that Congress could be in the middle of negotiating another coronavirus relief package in late February. An aide to Donald Trump Jr. said he would “probably” attend the conference, as he has done in past years, but that it was not currently on his schedule.

CPAC organizers did announce three speakers for the upcoming conference after POLITICO began inquiring about the lineup. In separate tweets on Tuesday from the @CPAC2021 Twitter account, it was revealed that former U.S. Ambassador to Germany Ric Grenell, former Deputy White House National Security Adviser K.T. McFarland and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, a rumored 2024 hopeful, would all deliver remarks at the conference next month. No other speakers have been publicly announced as of the time this article was published.

For those planning this year’s CPAC, the main questions are not just whether Trump will be there, but how much his presidency and future should dominate the proceedings. Members of the planning committee began meeting virtually in November, after the 2020 election, and were expected to convene at least five times before the conference begins.

“Do we pull the Nancy Pelosi option and try to expunge Trump from public life or do we try to build on the movement he created and make it tenable? It’s messy,” said a person involved in the CPAC planning process.

So far, this person said, this year’s theme is expected to focus on the fundamentals of conservatism as opposed to any individual political figure — borrowing a page from the Obama years when conservatives lacked an ally in the White House. Topics are likely to include the rule of law, protecting the legislative filibuster and the current structure of the Supreme Court, and defending the Electoral College, among others.

As for this year’s sponsors, some of whom spent as much as $250,000 in past years for exclusive benefits and branding opportunities, several said they were still evaluating the benefits or had decided not to sponsor at all due to mediocre returns on the investment or changes to the conference structure. Gryphon Editions operations manager Michael Hawkins said his company did not plan to sponsor the conference this year after being informed that the CPAC bookstore, which has been set up for attendees in past years, would no longer be available due to Covid-19 precautions.

“They don’t want everybody huddling around,” Hawkins said.

Laura Merriott, president of the anti-abortion nonprofit Save Unborn Life, said her group “didn’t get much response [from] donors last time” after paying between $1,000-$3,000 for a sponsorship and creating a pop-up exhibition.

“It doesn’t pay for itself when you go and set up and you don’t get” enough new donors to make it worthwhile, she said.

Other past sponsors — including the Washington Examiner, Republican National Committee, Turning Point USA, Heartland Institute and Save our States — said they had yet to make a decision as of last week about sponsoring again. Gerrit Lansing, president of the GOP fundraising platform WinRed, said his company would forgo a sponsorship this year, unlike last year, because they “don’t need to” be a sponsor.

“I didn’t even know they were having a CPAC this year,” he added in a text message.

Three previous sponsors who responded to POLITICO inquiries — the Heritage Foundation, Fox Nation and Let Them Live — do plan to return as sponsors this year. “It’s a great venue for us to reach potential donors and supporters,” said Let Them Live executive director Nathan Berning. Twenty-five other sponsors who sponsored CPAC last year did not respond to requests for comment on if they will sponsor again this year, while two additional sponsors were unable to be reached.

Besides canceling its bookstore, where speakers and up-and-coming conservative personalities at past conferences could sell their latest books to fans, it is unclear if CPAC organizers plan to implement further restrictions to protect attendees of this year’s conference from contracting Covid-19.

The Orlando Hyatt Regency, where the conference will be held, requires guests to wear protective face coverings inside the complex, but neither the hotel nor conference organizers specified whether social distancing practices would be implemented or an attendee cap imposed. According to its website, the Florida Department of Health currently encourages people in the state “to avoid congregating in groups larger than 10.”

Meridith McGraw and Tina Nguyen contributed reporting.

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