PASCAGOULA, Miss., November 6, 2023
In a deep red state where Democrats haven’t clinched the governor’s office in over two decades, the 2023 gubernatorial race is turning heads. Brandon Presley, a former small-town mayor and state utility regulator, is challenging incumbent Republican Governor Tate Reeves for a second term. Despite the state’s strong Republican inclination, Presley, who incidentally shares a family connection with the iconic Elvis Presley, has launched an impressive and robust campaign.
While Presley’s celebrity connection is noteworthy, it’s his focus on populist issues and anti-corruption efforts that have Democrats and voters excited. Reeves, on the other hand, finds himself embroiled in the state’s largest public corruption investigation, which revolves around the misuse of millions of dollars in welfare funds during his tenure as lieutenant governor.
Although Reeves remains the favored candidate due to the Republican stronghold in Mississippi, grassroots activists and strategists on both sides suggest that the race on the ground is much closer than expected. A recent Magnolia Tribune/Mason-Dixon poll had Reeves leading by 8 points, but more recent private polls indicate a tightening race. The Cook Political Report shifted its rating from “likely” to “lean” Republican during the past month. If neither candidate secures over 50% of the vote, a runoff election will be held three weeks later.
Brandon Presley’s campaign has resonated with voters, especially in struggling communities. He has pledged to extend Medicaid, lower the state’s grocery tax, which currently stands at 7% (the highest in the country), and ensure that hospitals remain operational. Additionally, he has consistently criticized Reeves for corruption and being beholden to special interests. During the campaign’s sole televised debate, Presley accused the governor of being “bought and paid for.”
Governor Reeves vehemently denies allegations of corruption, claiming that the scandal predates his tenure as governor. While the scandal erupted in 2020 when the state auditor reported the mishandling of $77 million in federal welfare funds, including payments to former NFL quarterback Brett Favre, Reeves insists he was not involved in any wrongdoing. Medicaid expansion remains a contentious issue, with Reeves opposing it and proposing an alternative plan for the state’s struggling hospitals.
Reeves, who recently received an endorsement from former President Donald Trump, has portrayed Presley as being funded by coastal elites and urged supporters to vote in defense of Mississippi’s conservative policies.
National Democrats have been closely monitoring the Mississippi race, sensing an opportunity to challenge Reeves, who won his previous race by only 5 points. The Democratic Governors Association (DGA) has invested significantly in Presley’s campaign, with a total spending of $5 million, more than double what they spent on the Democratic candidate in 2019. Although Presley faces long odds, Democrats hope he can push the election into a runoff, similar to their success in Georgia’s recent runoffs.
Presley has been focusing on winning over Black voters, who make up 37 percent of Mississippi’s electorate. To be competitive, he needs to secure at least 32 percent of the Black vote, and voter outreach groups are working tirelessly to mobilize these voters. Black Voters Matter, among other organizations, has been active in building support in Mississippi communities, mirroring their successful efforts in Georgia. Local volunteers have been conducting personal outreach to encourage infrequent voters to participate.
Despite challenges such as voter apathy fueled by disillusionment, grassroots organizers are making significant efforts to get voters to the polls. The gubernatorial race in Mississippi has become a competitive contest, and while Presley is still considered the underdog, a close race is anticipated as Mississippi heads to the polls.
The election will provide valuable insights into the changing political landscape in a traditionally red state and the potential for a Democratic upset in a deep red stronghold.