HATTIESBURG, Miss.—Mississippi Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, a Republican candidate for governor this year, misled voters on Tuesday when he claimed that state Attorney General Jim Hood would allow "terrorists and rapists" to vote from prison if elected.
During this year's legislative session, some Mississippi Democrats, like House Minority Leader David Baria, pushed for a law to allow the restoration of voting rights for those who have served their time, but Republicans blocked those efforts. Hood, a Democratic candidate for governor, did tell a crowd in Hattiesburg last week that he supports restoring the right to people with felony convictions, but only after they have served their time.
In his successful 2003 bid for state treasurer, critics accused current-Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves of running ads designed to remind voters that his Democratic opponent, Gary Anderson, was black.
In a Facebook post on Tuesday, though, Reeves suggested Hood holds the same position as U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is running for the Democratic party's nomination for president.
In a CNN town hall on Monday night, Sanders argued that voting rights are "inherent to our democracy" and ought to be extended even to "terrible people." Inmates, he said, should retain the right to vote while they are still in prison.
"This week, Bernie Sanders said that terrorists and rapists should be allowed to vote in our elections," Reeves wrote in a Tuesday afternoon Facebook post. "The left thinks the prisoners should be choosing our presidents. Jim Hood is with them. Last week, he admitted his support for letting felons vote."
Hood never endorsed the idea of allowing incarcerated people to vote, though, and the topic never even came up; he also declined to endorse Sanders' platform when an attendee asked.
Accusing Hood of being "soft on crime" strikes at one of his strengths with the state's more conservative voters. Criminal justice reform advocates have often criticized him for being too tough. In the mid-2000s, Hood successfully prosecuted Edgar Ray Killen for the murders of three civil rights workers in Neshoba County in 2003, known colloquially as the "Mississippi Burning" murders.
Hood: Reeves Trying 'to Scare Voters'
During the town hall, Hood bristled at comparisons Reeves has made in recent weeks between himself and national Democrats.
"A lot of other critics they're talking about things that are going on in Washington that has nothing to do with Mississippi," Hood told the crowd at the University of Southern Mississippi. "And, you know, we've seen it historically when people try to scare voters, usually people figure it out."
Reeves' claim that Hood will allow rapists to vote is somewhat ironic. Last year, Hood declined to join 26 other state attorneys general who signed a letter urging the U.S. Senate to confirm then-U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, and Reeves criticized Hood for not doing so. Even after Christine Blasey Ford testified before the U.S. Senate that Kavanaugh tried to rape her when they were teenagers, Reeves praised Kavanaugh, and dismissed her and other women's claims as a political hit.
Reeves' tactic is not new, though. In 1988, George H. W. Bush campaign strategist Lee Atwater helped produce the infamous "Willie Horton ad," a toxic ad that used racist politics to attack Democratic presidential nominee and Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukkakis.
The ad used the case of African American William Horton, a convicted felon who had gone home on a Massachusetts furlough program that a prior Republican governor had signed into law. While away, he committed rape and robbery. The Republican campaign ran an ad intended to scare white people, showing Horton's face and warning: "Dukakis not only opposes the death penalty; he allowed first-degree murderers to have weekend passes from prison." The ad helped Bush win the presidency.
Later, on his deathbed, Atwater, who years before had explained how the racist Southern strategy like the one used in the ad worked, apologized for the ad.
"In 1988, fighting Dukakis, I said that I 'would strip the bark off the little bastard' and 'make Willie Horton his running mate,'" Atwater later said, quoted in his New York Times obituary.
"Republicans in the South could not win elections by talking about issues," Atwater said, per the Times. "You had to make the case that the other guy, the other candidate, is a bad guy."
In 1988, then-Republican Committeeman Haley Barbour, whom voters would later elect as governor of Mississippi in 2004, played along with Atwater's southern strategy.
"The more people in the South know about Michael Dukakis, the better George Bush is going to do," Barbour said at a conference of southern Republicans in 1988.
Race a Major Factor in Reeves' First Race, Democrats Say
Last month, the Jackson Free Press reported on Reeves' 2003 election, when he ran for state treasurer against a far more qualified black Democrat. Critics say he put out mailers using opponent Gary Anderson's image to make sure voters knew Anderson was African American. Former Mississippi Democratic Party Chairman Rickey Cole told the Jackson Free Press it reminded him of another infamous ad—the "Hands" one that Republican U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina ran in his 1990 re-election bid. That 30-second attack ad began with a pair of white hands crumpling up a rejection letter.
"You needed that job, and you were the best qualified, but they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota," a deep-voiced narrator intones. "Is that really fair? Harvey Gant says it is."
The ad transitions to a split screen showing a photo of Harvey Gant, Helms' African American Democratic opponent, next to a photo of the white incumbent. Gant was "for racial quotas," the graphic read, while Helms was "against" them.
Cole told the Jackson Free Press that the mailer fit into the overall tenor of the 2003 race, in which he claims the southern strategy was at play from the start. That was the same year Barbour first ran for governor.
"Any time Republicans feel like a race is tight, you can go all the way back to Jesse Helms and Harvey Gant in North Carolina," Cole said. "You know, Haley's a master of the dog whistle ... so the southern strategy and the dog whistle is nothing new."
We unpack more than 50 years of toxic race politics in Mississippi and the U.S.
In that year, Republicans ran on a pro-tort reform platform that often emphasized, either directly or indirectly, black plaintiffs getting large payouts—which tort-reform lobbyists referred to as "jackpot justice," playing on racist "freeloader" myths.
Reeves office did not respond for a request for comment on the 2003 race when the Jackson Free Press reached out last week.
In that March 8 interview, Cole alluded to Barbour's role in the GOP of the 1980s. "Never forget that Roger Ailes, Lee Atwater and Haley Barbour came up in this process together, and they're all cut from the same cloth," Cole said in early March. Ailes, who died in 2017, was the chairman of Fox News, helping mold it into the GOP-aligned and now Trump-aligned cable network that the president consumes daily. In an expose in The New Yorker earlier this year, Jane Mayer reported that Ailes allegedly fed questions to Trump ahead of Republican debates in 2015 and that the network allegedly buried a story about the candidate's affair with Stormy Daniels ahead of the 2016 election.
Aside from his work on the Bush campaign, Atwater earlier worked on Ronald Reagan's 1980 presidential campaign, then worked in the Reagan White House, and later became the chairman of the Republican National Committee—the same position Barbour eventually assumed. In a now infamous 1982 recording, Atwater described the GOP's "southern strategy."
"You start out in 1954 by saying, 'N--ger, n--ger, n--ger.' By 1968 you can't say 'n--ger'—that hurts you, backfires," Atwater says in the recording, which emerged in 2012. "Now, you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites ... 'We want to cut this,' is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than "N--ger, n--ger."
GOP Attempts to Tie Democrats to Terrorists Go Back to 9/11
After the 2001 terrorist attacks, Republicans nationwide suggested Democrats were allied, either implicitly or explicitly, with terrorists. In 2008, Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin infamously and falsely accused then-Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama of "pallin' around with terrorists."
Donald Trump renewed those attacks when he ran for president, absurdly claiming that Obama and 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state, founded the terrorist organization ISIS.
"ISIS is honoring President Obama. ... He is the founder of ISIS," Trump said at an August 2008 campaign event. "And, I would say the co-founder would be crooked Hillary Clinton."
ISIS' origins, though, began with the start of the Iraq War in 2003. The sprawling ground war led to the creation of offshoot terrorist organizations, and ISIS, or the Islamic State, emerged from the ashes, maturing to full strength midway through Obama's second term.
Follow state reporter Ashton Pittman on Twitter @ashtonpittman. Email story tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.