ITTA BENA, Miss. – “I’m Brandon Presley,” said the Democrat running for governor of Mississippi. “Running against Tate Reeves.”
Plenty of people at the Mississippi Valley State University tailgate recognized Presley, a longtime public service commissioner with a famous name, right away. All of them perked up at the mention of Gov. Reeves — a Republican who’s never been popular with Black voters, and made even more enemies in his first term.
“Tater Tot? No, no, no,” said Takiyah Lymon after Presley posed for a photo with her family. “I’m here for healthcare. My mother had to go back to work to help me pay for my medication.”
Presley, a conservative Democrat who believes that life starts at conception, has run a campaign that’s partly about himself and largely about Reeves. He’s attacked the incumbent relentlessly over a welfare scandal that routed state funds to well-connected Republicans; over rural hospital closures, which he blames on the governor’s refusal to expand Medicaid; and over inflation, which he’d fight by ending the state grocery tax.
“I’m gonna tell you something — I read the red letters in the Bible,” Presley told the congregation at a Greenville church on Sunday, one of dozens of stops he’d made in the majority-Black Delta. “I read all of it, but the red letters jump out, ‘cause that’s what Jesus said himself. And he said: When you’ve done it unto the least of these, my brethren, you have done it unto me! We should have, in government, policies that reflect that philosophy.”
No Mississippi governor has lost re-election in 20 years, when Ronnie Musgrove became the last Democrat to hold the office, but a similar anti-abortion/pro-Medicaid message managed to win John Bel Edwards two terms as governor in neighboring Louisiana. No other Republican is sweating his or her re-election on Nov. 7, the first one since Reeve’s administration brought the case that ended Roe v. Wade. National Democrats have poured $3 million into Presley’s race, increasingly convinced that Reeves is uniquely vulnerable and their nominee is uniquely positioned to beat him. (Reeves ended September with $6 million left to spend, three times as much as Presley.)
“He has a lack of empathy, which leaders need,” said former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, whose 2003 defeat kicked off the era of Republican rule. “He has trouble relating to people. He seems very distant, both in personality and in life experience.”
Reeves, who won his first term by just 5 points, has cast Presley as a puppet of coastal liberals who’d halt “Mississippi momentum” — the lowest unemployment rate in a century, higher test scores, and businesses relocating from blue states.
“What matters most is his job approval number, and it’s been over 50%, because his record on jobs and education has been phenomenal,” said Austin Barbour, a GOP strategist and son of former Gov. Haley Barbour. “It’s close because we don’t have blowouts in competitive races. Our demographics aren’t set up for that.”
Mississippi’s demographics, and its rigid racial polarization, have kept national Democrats interested in the state, confident in a formula that’s never quite come together. Republicans win more than 80% of the white vote, Democrats win more than 90% of the Black vote; in theory, a Democrat who maximized black turnout while keeping his losses low in the rest of the state could eke it out.
Democrats I talked to had the same back-of-napkin math. Presley needed to run as strong with white voters as former Attorney Gen. Jim Hood did in 2019, when he lost to Reeves — then, get out Black voters like 2018/2020 U.S. Senate candidate Mike Espy, who won 90% of a Black electorate that turned out at a record 76%.
“We’re making the largest investment in Black voter turnout that’s ever been,” Presley said after a canvass launch in Starkville; Hood had won the county, home to Mississippi State University, by 14 points. Before entering the race, Presley talked with Espy about what worked, and obtained his list of 160,000 donors. That, and the late interest by the Democratic Governors Association, helped bring him to spending parity with Reeves.
Republicans worried about Reeves are mostly concerned with turnout — a match-up between a self-described “country” Democrat, whose base cannot stand the incumbent, and an incumbent who juiced turnout last time with a last-minute appearance from Donald Trump. (“I can’t believe this is a competitive race,” Trump said in Tupelo; a year later, he’d triple Reeves’s win margin.)
Presley has other advantages; a local “electoral college” system, which threw state elections to the legislature unless a candidate won both the majority of the vote and a majority of house districts, was repealed by voters in 2020. Reeves has defended his opposition to Medicaid expansion as opposition to “welfare,” telling WLOX last week that Democrats simply want to put “able-bodied adults” on “welfare rolls.” But it remains a political problem for him; his announcement of a new hospital reimbursement plan last month was viewed skeptically as a last-minute political fix.
“I thought we’d spend a lot of time educating people on what Medicaid expansion was and why it would benefit the state,” Presley said in an interview. “That’s not the case. Whether I’m in a rural Republican county, or I’m in a strongly Democratic stronghold, people understand that issue.”
The View From Next Door
Earlier this month, Republicans romped home in Louisiana, with Attorney Gen. Jeff Landry winning an out-right majority of the vote and preventing a runoff, despite a crowded field of GOP and Democratic competitors. One GOP tactic that worked — and one not seen in neighboring Mississippi — was constant outreach to Black voters, including ads that featured Black crime victims who believed that Landry would make the state safer, and radio spots with testimonials from the candidate’s old friends.
“We were very aggressive in asking for everyone’s vote,” said Landry strategist Brent Littlefield. “We really didn’t leave any stones unturned.”
- In the New York Times, Nick Corasaniti looks at how changes to old Jim Crow laws have encouraged Democrats here, and “could be paving a path for Black voters to build a stronger voice in the South.”
- In the Cook Political Report, Jessica Taylor explains why Presley’s odds have improved, and that “the contest could head to a runoff three weeks later.” (Independent candidate Gwendolyn Gray has dropped out and endorsed Presley, but remains on the ballot.)
- In Mississippi Today, Adam Ganucheau assesses why Reeves can’t rely on another boost from Trump: pollsters find a “more negative overall view of the former president than in previous years’ polling.”