DemDaily: The Hope of Mississippi

October 30, 2023

The Mississippi gubernatorial race, 2023's most high-profile statewide contest, is in a statistical dead heat -- offering Democrats their first hope in over two decades of retaking the Governor's mansion.

Four-term Public Commissioner and former Nettleton Mayor Brandon Presley, a distant relative of music legend Elvis Presley, is waging a formidable challenge to Incumbent Republican Governor Tate Reeves.

Although Mississippi is a ruby red state where Republicans control all statewide offices and the state legislature, Reeves is a top target as one of the country's most unpopular governors.

An October 19-20, 2023 Public Policy Polling/DGA survey of likely voters showed Tate leading Presley in a statistical 46%-45% dead heat, with nearly 10% undecided (MOE: ± 4.0%).

Reeves, a former banking executive, served as State Treasurer from 2004-2012 and Lt. Governor from 2012-2020. He was elected Governor in 2019, winning the general election with 51.91% to 46.83% over Democrat Phil Hood.

A staunch ally of Donald Trump, who won the state with over 16%, Reeves supported the former president's efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.

According to the PPP survey, the confrontational Reeves, who has been under attack for using taxpayer dollars for personal purposes, awarding state contracts to major campaign donors and giving himself a 31% raise, has a 51% unfavorable/33% favorability rating.

66% of all voters are also very or somewhat concerned about the role Reeves may have played in the state’s far-reaching welfare scandal in which at least $77 million in federal funds -- intended for the state’s poorest residents -- were misspent or directed to wealthy, politically-connected Mississippians when Reeves was lieutenant governor.

Reeves nevertheless has amassed a fundraising war chest, starting this year with nearly $7.9 million in two campaign accounts. He raised an addition $5.1 million through the end of September, and reported roughly $4.15 million cash on hand.

Presley, a moderate populist who holds conservative stances on issues like abortion, taxes and gun control, was first elected to office at age 23 -- becoming the youngest mayor in Mississippi's history and later the President of the North Mississippi Mayor’s Association.

He served as Mayor of Nettleton from 2001 to 2007 when he ran for the office of Public Service Commissioner for the Northern District of the Mississippi Public Service Commission. Presley was reelected in 2011, 2015 and, in 2019. without opposition. The same year he was elected President of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC).

Fundraising reports show Presley actually outraised Reeves nearly 4-to-1 in the third quarter of the election, for a campaign total of $7.9 million, with $1.83 million cash on hand as of September 30. The Democratic Governor’s Association (DGA) has invested heavily in Presley's candidacy, contributing a total of $3.7 million to his campaign.

Both candidates had spent close to $7 million going into October, a significant portion of which has gone to ad wars -- with Presley focusing on the welfare scandal and government corruption, and Reeves attempting to tie Presley to national Democrats' "liberal ideology."

A third candidate, Independent Gwendolyn Gray, dropped out of the race on October 9 and publicly endorsed Presley, but her withdrawal came too late to be removed from the November 7 general election ballot.

Regardless of their respective party nominations, if neither Reeves or Presley receives more than 50% of the vote, then the two go to a runoff November 28.

Gray could still inadvertently earn enough votes to keep Reeves or Presley from reaching 50% and trigger a runoff. Her endorsement may also be enough to put Presley over the top among undecided voters, who, according to polling, have a 68% unfavorable opinion of Reeves.

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Kimberly Scott

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Sources: Ballotpedia, Mississippi Today, AP, Vox, The Hill, FiveThirtyEight, MorningConsult, DGA

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