Democrats seek upset in Mississippi governor’s race

Mississippi’s gubernatorial race next week could be surprisingly competitive as Democratic challenger Brandon Presley seeks to unseat Republican Gov. Tate Reeves in the deep-red state.

Despite Mississippi’s status as a conservative stronghold, Democrats see an opportunity to flip the governor’s mansion, pointing to Reeves’s relatively low approval ratings and concerns about a long-running welfare scandal in the state as he seeks his second term as governor.

The GOP holds a trifecta in the state — meaning it controls the governor’s office, as well as the state House and Senate — while former President Trump won the state by roughly 16 points in 2020.

But the nonpartisan election handicapper Cook Political Report shifted its assessment of the gubernatorial race last week from “likely” to “lean” Republican.

Reeves “still has the edge,” analyst Jessica Taylor wrote for Cook Political Report, but Presley’s “unusually strong challenger” status has made the race “a competitive fight with added intrigue.”

A number of factors and recent system changes in the Magnolia State “could create a unique constellation of opportunity” for Presley — the state’s northern-district public service commissioner and the distant cousin of Tupelo-born artist Elvis Presley — in next week’s off-year election, said Carrie Archie Russell, a principal senior lecturer and an expert on Southern politics at Vanderbilt University.

Back in 2020, Mississippi voters repealed a requirement that a candidate for governor or other statewide office receive both the majority vote and the majority of the state’s electoral vote to win, a Jim Crow-era, Electoral College-esque system that advocates said diluted Black voting power.

And earlier this year, a court struck down a long-standing law that imposed a lifetime voting ban for people convicted of certain felonies, which was estimated to impact more than 10 percent of the state’s voting-age population, according to The Sentencing Project. The case is now under appeal, according to Mississippi Today.

Given these changes, “Mississippi voters could feel emboldened to show up and participate in a way that was more like a pipe dream in the past,” Russell said. Coupled with Reeves’s popularity struggles, she predicts there could be an avenue for the Democrat to be particularly competitive.

“You can see why pundits and candidates who had taken for granted the fact that Mississippi would remain a ruby-red bastion at all levels of government forever might have to take a deep breath,” Russell said.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, chair of the Democratic Governors Association (DGA), told The Washington Post earlier this year that “Mississippi is the sleeper,” citing Reeves’s unpopularity.

A new poll from the Democratic-leaning firm Public Policy Polling, released last week by the DGA, showed Presley and Reeves neck and neck, with 45 percent support for the Democrat and 46 percent for the Republican incumbent in a head-to-head match-up.

The pollster labeled it a “highly competitive” contest with 10 percent of voters still undecided.

Magnolia Tribune/Mason-Dixon Poll released in early October found Reeves with a more substantial 8-point lead. In August, a Mississippi Today/Siena College poll found Reeves up 11 points.

Presley notably outraised Reeves heading into November’s election, according to reports on filings from the third fundraising quarter, though the incumbent has more left to spend.

In 2019, Reeves, who served as lieutenant governor, bested Democrat Jim Hood, then the state’s attorney general, to fill the seat left empty by his term-limited Republican predecessor.

A Democrat hasn’t held the governorship in Mississippi for 20 years, but Hood notably lost by just 5 points in that race.

“I think that Mississippi is an inflection point for a number of people … and I think the inflection point is a recognition of: The state can’t continue on the path that it is. So we got to do something different,” said Jackson-based Democratic strategist Pam Shaw.

“In Mississippi, we don’t always recognize how close races are. What do I mean? Jim Hood lost four years ago by less than 45,000 votes,” Shaw said, pointing to Reeves’s narrow win in 2019. “Any place else, that would’ve been considered close. In Mississippi, that wasn’t considered close.”

Mississippi-based Republican strategist Austin Barbour said he’s “actually not that surprised” that the gubernatorial race is looking so competitive, and pointed to Presley’s financial backing from the DGA.

“That’s the big difference between what he’s doing this time and what Jim Hood did four years ago … and that’s what’s made this race competitive,” Barbour said.

But Barbour contended the Magnolia State is still highly conservative and Reeves still has the advantage. He also shrugged off concerns about the incumbent’s popularity, arguing there’s not “enough out there for a majority of voters to say, ‘You know what, we need a change in the governor’s mansion, we need to go to a Democrat for the first time in 20 years.’”

The two gubernatorial candidates went toe-to-toe Wednesday for a debate that turned heated at times as they swapped barbs.

Presley has sought to stress the state’s welfare scandal, which centers on the misuse of funds in the state. Reeves has been name-checked in the matter but has not been charged with any wrongdoing.

The incumbent got the “total and complete endorsement” of former President Trump earlier this week — while Trump underscored the support Presley has gotten from Democrats.

“Now Joe Biden wants to put his candidate — and this is his candidate, Brandon Presley — in as Mississippi’s governor. The citizens of Mississippi must not let that happen,” Trump said in a video shared by the Mississippi GOP.

The Republican Governors Association also lauded Reeves after the debate and said “Mississippi is ready for another four years with Governor Reeves.”

The DGA said he “has had 12 years to take action on the issues that matter most to Mississippians. And he’s failed.”

DGA Deputy Communications Director Izzi Levy pointed to the polls, telling The Hill they show “a very competitive race” as “Mississippi Republicans are sounding the alarm about Brandon’s momentum.”

Mississippi’s significant African American population will likely be key to charting any path to victory for Presley next week. Nearly 38 percent of the population is Black, according to census data, and Black voters in the state have been noted to trend Democratic.

“You can’t make up 38 percent of the population and not be important. … That’s just math,” said Shaw, the Democratic strategist. Presley needs Black Mississippians to turn out, she said, and suggested the Democrat has done well at reaching out to those necessary potential voters.

Analysts from “Sabato’s Crystal Ball” at the University of Virginia Center for Politics said in a preview of the races this week that Presley’s “late momentum” may not be enough to get him across the finish line, but it noted that a runoff is “not completely out of the question” in the Mississippi contest if no candidate gets a majority Tuesday.

An independent candidate, Gwendolyn Gray, dropped out of the race and endorsed Presley but will still be on the ballot.

As far as a possible Presley win goes, “such a surprising result would involve two major ingredients: Presley would need roughly 30 percent of the white vote … while getting Black voters to make up at least one-third or so of the electorate,” wrote Kyle Kondik and J. Miles Coleman of Sabato’s Crystal Ball.

As some watch Mississippi with bated breath, eyes will also be on Kentucky’s gubernatorial election next week, where incumbent Gov. Andy Beshear (D) is fending off a challenge from Republican Daniel Cameron.

Democratic wins in the two contests have “the potential to be a bellwether” for 2024 and beyond, said Russell, which could encourage other candidates to “go for it” in states they might have otherwise written off.

For the latest news, weather, sports, and streaming video, head to The Hill.