Democrats see Mississippi governor’s race as ripe for an upset

Democrats in Mississippi are feeling optimistic that their party will be able to oust Gov. Tate Reeves (R) from the governor’s mansion this fall after Democrat Brandon Presley’s recent entry in the race. 

Reeves has suffered from low approval ratings and has been name-checked at times in the state’s long-running welfare scandal, but the governorship has proved elusive for Democrats in the red state for decades. 

The party believes this time will be different. They say Presley, the state’s northern district public service commissioner and a distant relative of Elvis Presley, has an ability to connect with rural voters and that he’s proven he can win elections in some of the reddest parts of the state. 

“There is not a better retail politician in the state of Mississippi, period. He knows how to connect with voters. He knows how to listen to voters, which I think is an underrated skill in a politician,” said Democratic strategist Brannon Miller, whose firm has worked with Presley’s campaign previously but is not involved in the gubernatorial race at this time. 

“As a Democrat, you can’t be anything but optimistic about a person like that,” he added.

Presley, who officially announced his candidacy a little over a week ago, touted his credentials as a former mayor of Nettletown — a “no stoplight town” — in his announcement video. He also emphasized his time serving on the state’s utilities regulatory body where he said he “opened up closed-door meetings to the public, brought high-speed internet service all the way out here — to some of the most rural and forgotten places in our state.”

Shortly after his announcement, Rep. Bennie Thompson (Miss.), the lone Democrat in Mississippi’s congressional delegation and a powerful member of the party in the state, endorsed Presley. 

In an interview with The Hill, Thompson pointed to teachers grappling with low pay, the ongoing welfare investigation into millions of dollars that were supposed to go to the state’s low-income residents and were misappropriated, and dozens of rural hospitals on the brink of shutting down as some of the biggest issues the state will need to contend with.

“Brandon Presley says he wants to work with those local communities on their particular problems. I’m excited about that,” Thompson said. “‘Cause I hear what people are saying every day about their trials and tribulations. And so we need somebody in the highest position in this state that not just hear about citizens’ trials and tribulations but actually does something about it.”

Indeed, Mississippi State Health Officer Daniel Edney warned in November that the financial crisis plaguing the state’s rural hospitals risked the closure of more than half of them, the Mississippi Clarion Ledger reported. Teachers’ pay in the state has trailed other states in the nation, though Reeves last year signed legislation that would boost pay an average of more than $5,000. Ageing water infrastructure in Jackson, exacerbated by serious weather conditions, has left residents in the majority-Black city without reliable, clean water at times. 

There’s also an ongoing investigation into the misappropriation of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) funds that were supposed to be directed toward the state’s lowest income residents but were instead pocketed for things unrelated to the program’s priorities. The investigation has at times name-checked Reeves, but he has not been charged with any wrongdoing.

Democrats see recent polling as reason for optimism that there’s fertile ground to elect a Democrat as governor. A Morning Consult poll released earlier this month found Reeves among the 10 governors with the lowest approval ratings, coming in at 49 percent. And a Mississippi Today-Siena College poll found that 57 percent of respondents, including 33 percent of Republicans, would like to see someone other than the governor as the state’s top official.

“Brandon Presley’s never … relied solely on Democrats to win. He’s always had to win Republicans and independents to have the job he has now,” said a consultant that works with Presley’s campaign. 

“’I’m not worried about the registration of the state,” the consultant said, pointing to the 57 percent of those polled in the Mississippi Today-Siena College survey that wanted a new governor.

Plus, several Republicans, including former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Bill Waller Jr. and Secretary of State Michael Watson, are reportedly considering entering the race, which could spark a bruising primary for Reeves.

But Republicans say Democrats still have their work cut out for them. The state hasn’t elected a Democrat for governor since 1999, and unseating a Republican incumbent in a state that went for former President Trump by more than 16 points in 2020 will be no small feat.

“Brandon Presley and D.C. Democrats are dreaming if they think they can turn Mississippi blue. The hard-working people of Mississippi know they can’t afford a Joe Biden liberal running the state into the ground,” Sara Craig, executive director of the Republican Governors Association, said in a statement. 

“Democrat policies around the country have crushed Americans struggling to make ends meet. The leadership of Governor Reeves is a stark contrast, with more jobs and better pay, safer streets and quality schools, and he’s just getting started,” she added.

Frank Bordeaux, the chairman of the Mississippi GOP, said he didn’t take much stock in Mississippi Today’s polling on Reeves and believed that the state’s welfare investigation would not negatively impact the governor’s reelection efforts — a probe that Presley referenced in his first ad.

“Obviously, if you’re going [to] go negative right out the gate, you’re losing,” Bordeaux said. “And so that’s kind of how we take that. Him saying that he’s got to do something to get his name out there, and he’s got to try to compete with the governor. And he’s obviously decided to go negative right out the gate.”

Democrats acknowledge that a mixture of rebuilding state party infrastructure and increased financial engagement is necessary for making inroads. 

“A real weakness [in] the state is we don’t have the infrastructure, right? We just don’t have a Democratic infrastructure. Our Democratic Party is in a rebuilding phase, for lack of a better word,” said Democratic strategist Pam Shaw, referring to the state Democratic Party.

Miller, the other Democratic strategist, put it another way.

“I think it’s a problem of, you know, we’re just a poor state, and particularly Democratic voters tend to be very poor in Mississippi. And we don’t have the sort of outside progressive organizations that provide the base in terms of financial and grassroots support for Democratic candidates,” he said.

The Democratic Governors Association (DGA) invested seven figures in the 2019 gubernatorial race, and spokesman Sam Newton said in a statement the group will “continue to closely watch this race as it develops.”

“The DGA has shown that we can win anywhere, including ousting GOP incumbents in very tough environments like Kentucky, Wisconsin and North Carolina in recent election cycles,” he noted.

Andre Wagner, executive director for the Mississippi Democratic Party, said making gains for Democrats in a red state like Mississippi will be “something that takes time,” pointing to Georgia as an example.

“I think that Mississippi is on the precipice of being able to be on the forefront — to be right on the forefront to turn this state blue, or at least purple. It took work, it took real concerted effort to turn Georgia into what it is now,” Wagner said. 

“Shirley Chisholm said that if you’re not at the table, bring a folding chair. And honestly, I think that’s what we need to do is make sure we bring folding chairs to the table so we can all be a part of this work together,” he added.

Tags Bennie Thompson Brandon Presley Elvis Presley Mississippi governor's race Tate Reeves Tate Reeves

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