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If Democrat Brandon Presley wins in Mississippi, it would buck 20 years of precedent

Mississippi Democratic gubernatorial candidate Brandon Presley speaks to reporters during a campaign stop on November 06, 2023 in Jackson, Mississippi.
Brandon Bell
Getty Images
Mississippi Democratic gubernatorial candidate Brandon Presley speaks to reporters during a campaign stop on November 06, 2023 in Jackson, Mississippi.

Updated November 8, 2023 at 12:27 PM ET

What was once seen as a slam dunk for Republicans in Mississippi's gubernatorial election has morphed into Democrats' best shot at the governor's mansion in two decades.

Republican Tate Reeves has had every advantage as the incumbent in a deep red state. Known as one of the best fundraisers in state history, his fifth term in statewide office has been defined by a supermajority in both chambers of the state legislature and all statewide offices.

His challenger, Brandon Presley, who is currently one of the state's three public service commissioners, aims to do what no Mississippi Democrat has done in more than 20 years: get elected to the state's highest office.

"This is a race I've been watching since the beginning of the year, and it was a very unlikely one to become competitive," said Jessica Taylor, who analyzes governor's races for The Cook Political Report.

"But when I had to look at all the factors, it was very hard to deny that it is clearly a competitive race," she said, noting Cook changed the rating of the race from Likely Republican to Lean Republican in late October.

Recent polling shows Presley trailing Reeves by only one percentage point, raising hope among traditionally pessimistic Democrats in the state and alarm in their Republican counterparts that the race could be heading for a first-ever runoff.

Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, center, greets supporters ahead of a football game at Mississippi State University on November 04, 2023 in Starkville, Mississippi.
Brandon Bell / Getty Images
Getty Images
Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, center, greets supporters ahead of a football game at Mississippi State University on Nov. 4 in Starkville, Miss.

'He's not always the most likable guy'

On the campaign trail, Reeves has touted his conservative record to voters, pointing to gains made in education and economic development during his first term. That message has found success within his base, who often prioritize the state's economy over any other issues.

Days from the election, Reeves visited with voters who comprise that base at a 10-acre tailgating area shaded by oak, magnolia and elm at the center of the University of Mississippi's campus in Oxford known as the Grove.

"He's always right on the policies, and so I don't think we need to change horses at this point in time," said business development consultant Geoffrey Yoste, one of many Reeves supporters gathered at the Grove before a marquee football matchup against conference rivals Texas A&M.

Yoste told NPR it's important Reeves remains in office to maintain some form of consistency regarding state policy.

"What meant the most to me is the leadership that he showed during the COVID pandemic. I thought that Tate and his team did an outstanding job. He didn't just completely lock us down," said Yoste. "And that was a really important thing, not only for the school kids, but folks who were having to go to work every day."

But Yoste also touched on a concern that many in the state's large Republican base and political apparatus have increasingly voiced as polling numbers have drawn closer: likability.

"Reeves is not always the most likable guy. Everybody can all agree on that," Yoste said, before musing about Reeves' opponent: "Brandon Presley is an outstanding politician and he's a super guy, too. He's one of the best courthouse politicians in the state. Brandon is likable and so it's going to be a tough race for Tate."

"I think he'll win," stressed Yoste, "but nobody dislikes Presley."

A large portion of Reeves' approach to the campaign has been his nationalization of the race, portraying Presley as a puppet of liberal, national Democratic Party figures like President Biden and Mississippi 2nd District Congressman Bennie Thompson, who served as chairman of the congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

In a speech at the annual Hobnob Mississippi, where elected officials, community and economic leaders from across the state meet weeks before the general election, Reeves said Presley and national Democrats want to take over Mississippi itself.

"They don't just want to change governors — they want to change Mississippi," he said.

Former President Donald Trump formally endorsed Reeves last week, likely giving the incumbent a needed boost in the runup to the election.

In a video address announcing the endorsement, Trump accused the Biden administration of funding Presley's campaign and said his election would be "really bad for Mississippi."

The two participated in a joint tele-rally Monday night in an attempt to direct Trump's support in the state — which voted for the former president overwhelmingly in both 2016 and 2020 — to Reeves.

Presley takes message his message all across Mississippi

A self-described "populist, FDR-Billy McCoy Democrat," Presley's political career began when he was elected mayor in his small, northeastern Mississippi hometown of Nettleton in 2001. He was 23 years old and became the youngest mayor ever elected in the state.

He rose to political prominence through his efforts to expand high-speed internet access in rural areas, opposition to a controversial and now defunct coal power plant in eastern Mississippi's Kemper County, and through his relation to a certain Mississippi celebrity: Elvis Presley, the King of Rock and Roll.

But the connection drawn between Presley the candidate and his second-cousin is more than just pandering to voters.

Presley has spent much of his campaign and its available funds in the pursuit of greater name recognition around the state, in part due to the ineffectiveness of the Mississippi Democratic Party, even before former chair Tyree Irving was forced to resign in early July.

If the Presley campaign's goal was to shake, rattle and roll its way to the governor's mansion in downtown Jackson, it has, in many ways, done exactly that.

Since announcing his bid for governor in mid-January, Presley had campaigned in all of Mississippi's 82 counties, and made 55 additional stops between mid-October and Election Day.

"I just think it's important when you're running for governor to be out amongst the people of the state of Mississippi, to let them know what you're about, answer their questions, and to listen to the issues of their community," he told NPR. "Each county has its own different set of things that they want to talk to you about."

Much of his statewide tour has focused on criticizing Reeves' inaction on economic issues in the state, and what he calls corruption inherent to the administration.

At 7%, the state with the highest poverty rate in the country also holds the highest sales tax on groceries, which Presley has promised to do away with if elected.

At many points on the campaign trail, Presley has made the point that it's cheaper to purchase feed for hogs or other livestock than food for families living in poverty in Mississippi.

But perhaps the biggest flashpoint between the two candidates has been Reeves' refusal to expand Medicaidto an estimated 300,000 Mississippians. Advocates for the expansion, including Presley, say it's much needed and could help address the risk of closure in more than 30 rural hospitals across the state.

One such hospital is located in Greenwood, a town in the Mississippi Delta — a historically significant region of the state, but also one of the poorest areas in the country.

Residents there say they worry what the looming closure of the publicly owned hospital, Greenwood LeFlore, could mean for a historically impoverished and underserved community.

"What about the people around here that can't go anywhere? What about the people that don't have a car?" said Demetrice Bedell, a lifelong Greenwood resident.

A military veteran, Bedell says the possible closure presents an especially dangerous risk to those who suffer from a heart attack or stroke.

"That hospital is needed — not just for us, but all the surrounding area," he told NPR. "It's truly a life and death situation. If you've got to take someone from Greenwood to Grenada, it's going to take you 45 minutes to an hour. That person is going to die halfway to Grenada."

Presley speaks to supporters during a campaign stop in early November in Jackson.
Brandon Bell / Getty Images
Getty Images
Presley speaks to supporters during a campaign stop in early November in Jackson.

Presley is trying to rebuild the Democratic base

Another main component of Presley's campaign has been engaging Black voters across the state, something 2019 Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jim Hood faced significant criticism for not pursuing enough en route to his loss to Reeves.

Only days before the election, Presley made stops at several locations throughout the Mississippi Delta to speak about the importance of this election to a large portion of that voting bloc.

"Holmes County has got to come vote because we've got a chance to win. They're all nervous," said Presley.

At a meet and greet in the county seat of Lexington, DJ James said she was pleased that Presley came to visit with voters in the first place — something voters in the majority-Black county have become unaccustomed to.

"Tate Reeves is talking about how Brandon Presley wants to change Mississippi. Well, Mississippi needs to change," she said. "Young doctors graduate from college with master's degrees, doctor's degrees and they have to go out of the state of Mississippi to get a good paying decent job. That's not fair," she said.

She said the lack of affordable health care and low wages makes life in the region difficult.

"We can't buy medicine and pay for doctor's visits. You can't do all that on these salaries — most people start out with $10 an hour," she said. "A family of four cannot survive on $10 an hour. $15 is not enough. $16 is not enough. I'll be 62 in December and I work three jobs in order to make it. You understand?"

Speaking to an energetic crowd of more than 50 in an event hall situated between a Dollar General market and Lexington's main street, Presley laid out the stakes.

"I came here to talk straight to you: we're running out of time in this election. The truth is, they think Black voters are going to stay at home. That's what they're sitting around saying," he said. "And the question is — what are you going to do about it? This race could come down to 30 votes — it's that close. We are right there, y'all, in breaking their power."

Taylor, of the Cook Political Report, says Presley's messaging worries some Republicans.

"That Medicaid expansion has a particular resonance in a state like Mississippi," she said.

Smelling blood in the water, the National Democratic Governors Association pumped nearly $7 million into Presley's campaign.

But even with such a strong showing from Presley, Taylor said it's Reeves' race to lose.

"It's still a tough task in a state as red as Mississippi — unseating any incumbent governor is very hard, actually," she said.

There's another factor at play.

Third party candidate Gwendolyn Gray dropped out of the race in early October. She endorsed Presley, but only after the ballot was certified in September, which means she'll still appear as an option for voters and could siphon off support from Presley.

If neither Reeves nor Presley receive the 50% majority, the state will head to its first-ever runoff election.

Mississippi Public Broadcasting's Will Stribling contributed to this report.

Copyright 2023 Mississippi Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Mississippi Public Broadcasting.

Michael McEwen