PASCAGOULA, Miss. — Voters in this deep red state haven’t elected a Democrat to the governor’s office in more than 20 years, but party leaders and voters are hopeful about their prospects this year, thanks to a tarnished incumbent and their celebrity-related challenger.
Brandon Presley, a former small-town mayor and state utilities regulator, has run a surprisingly strong campaign against Republican Gov. Tate Reeves, who is seeking a second term. Presley also happens to be a cousin of Elvis Presley.
But that’s not what has Democrats excited as they prepare to head to the polls on Tuesday. Presley, 46, has focused his campaign on championing populist issues and battling corruption. Reeves, 49, has found himself on the defensive, tangled up in the state’s largest public corruption investigation over misuse of millions of dollars in welfare funds while he was lieutenant governor.
Reeves is still favored to win — Republicans hold all of the top statewide offices and control both chambers of the legislature — but strategists and grass-roots activists on both sides say activity on the ground suggests a close race. A Magnolia Tribune/Mason-Dixon poll in early October had Reeves leading by 8 points. Some more recent private polls have suggested the race has tightened, and during the past month the Cook Political Report shifted it from “likely” to “lean” Republican. If neither candidate tops 50%, the contest would go to a runoff three weeks later.
Jackie Davis is so inspired to see a Democrat running a competitive campaign for governor, he rode his motorized wheelchair around this Gulf Coast port city last week, distributing voting information to neighbors who work in nearby shipyards.
“He’s approachable, cares about people less fortunate. This is going to be a close race,” said Davis, 61, who met Presley recently at a local union hall.
Presley might benefit from name recognition because of his famous second cousin, a native of Tupelo, Miss., but he hasn’t made Elvis a focus of his campaign. Instead, Presley, who describes himself as an antiabortion, pro-gun Christian, has promised to expand Medicaid, cut the state’s 7 percent grocery tax — the highest in the nation — and prevent hospital closures, issues that resonate in struggling communities. He has also hammered Reeves over the issue of public corruption. During the campaign’s sole televised debate Wednesday, Presley accused the governor of being “bought and paid for.” He said the enthusiasm he sees is fueled in part by Reeves’s record.
“Tate Reeves is the best turn out machine I have,” Presley said during an interview after a stop at a Christian bookstore in Biloxi last Sunday.
Reeves, in an interview with The Washington Post last week, rejected allegations that he is corrupt, saying the scandal predated his election as governor in 2019. Reeves was lieutenant governor from 2012 to 2020 and before that the state treasurer.
The scandal became public in 2020, when the state auditor announced that $77 million in federal welfare money had been mishandled between 2017 and 2020, including millions that went to speaking fees and a pet project for former NFL quarterback and Mississippi native Brett Favre, who has denied wrongdoing. Seven people have since pleaded guilty to bribery, conspiracy and fraud charges, including the former director of the state Department of Human Services, who was sentenced to 90 years in prison. Reeves has not been charged. The federal investigation is ongoing.
Reeves said Medicaid expansion would be a mistake and noted that he has proposed an alternate plan to aid the state’s beleaguered hospitals.
The governor also has touted his endorsement last week by Donald Trump, and said Presley is being funded by coastal elites. He urged supporters to turn out to vote in defense of the state’s conservative policies.
“I’m not taking it for granted,” he said of his reelection.
National Democrats have kept an eye on the Mississippi race over the last year, sensing a strong Democratic candidate could pose a formidable challenge given that Reeves won his 2019 race by only 5 points. Once Presley won the nomination, the party made its first investment this summer. In total, the Democratic Governors Association has spent $5 million, more than twice what it spent on the Democrat who ran for governor in 2019.
Democrats acknowledge Presley is a long shot, but they are hopeful he can force Reeves into a runoff. If he does, the party will be looking to replicate their success in Georgia, where Democratic candidates have increased their margins of victory in recent runoffs.
“In Mississippi, we have a combination of an unpopular incumbent who is scandal-ridden, a great nominee in Brandon Presley who is focused on delivering real change by cutting taxes for working people, ending corruption and expanding Medicaid,” said Sam Newton, communications director of the DGA. “We think there’s a real chance for an upset.”
Presley believes Black voters are key to winning. He has campaigned at Black churches, businesses and college tailgates. He met with actor and Mississippi native Morgan Freeman in the Delta last month and also campaigned there with Rep. Bennie G. Thompson over the summer. Black voters make up 37 percent of Mississippi’s electorate, according to the Census Bureau, more than any other state, and they could play a major role in deciding the governor’s race — if they turn out.
At a minimum, Presley needs 32 percent of Black voters to show up, according to the Cook Political Report. In 2008 and 2012 — when Barack Obama was on the ballot — Black turnout in Mississippi was only 34 percent and 35 percent, respectively. In the 2018, Black turnout was 35 percent for a special election for U.S. Senate featuring Democrat Mike Espy, a former congressman and the first African American to serve as U.S. secretary of agriculture, and Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, who had been appointed to fill a vacancy. The race went to a runoff, which Hyde-Smith won.
National organizers from groups like Black Voters Matter say they have spent years laying the groundwork to mobilize Black voters, as they did in Georgia before Sen. Raphael G. Warnock was first elected in 2021. From the Gulf Coast to the Delta, they say they’ve been surprised to find local volunteers already doing the kind of repeated, personal outreach that boosts turnout by getting infrequent voters to the polls.
“It caught me off guard,” said Pamela Shaw, a Jackson-based political strategist who saw far more outreach than she had expected when she toured seven cities statewide earlier this month with a nonpartisan get out the vote campaign. “Black elected officials are rallying around [Presley]. People are on the ground doing the work who are unrelated to the campaign. National and state organizations are doing work in the communities in ways I haven’t seen before.”
While last week’s debate raised awareness about the governor’s race among active voters, Shaw said, voter outreach groups, “have got to talk to the other people who are not engaged and may not even know there’s an election.”
Local nonpartisan organizers with the Poor People’s Campaign, a national group fighting racism and poverty based on the work of Martin Luther King Jr., went door to door Tuesday in the Delta town of Leland, population 4,000, where 23% live below the poverty line. At low-income housing complexes and trailer parks, they alerted Black and White voters to what’s at stake in the election.
“Just remember to get out and exercise your right,” Calvin Stewart told voters as he knocked on doors at Deer Creek apartments next to a cotton field.
Resident Tabitha White, 39, a disabled stay at home mom, brought her 12-year-old son to help Stewart. White said she’d already alerted several neighbors who voted absentee.
Even though news of the election has been flooding television, some potential voters were still unaware.
“Is it Thursday?” said Jakayla Young, 20.
Stewart gave her fliers, explained when the election is and told her that she could vote early. A certified nursing assistant, Young checked a calendar on her phone, said she was off on Tuesday and would try to vote then. She was registered, but couldn’t recall when she had last voted.
Stewart, who leads the campaign’s state chapter, said they were targeting just such infrequent, low-income voters in 21 of the state’s 82 counties. The biggest obstacle he’s faced among both Black and White voters: Apathy fueled by disillusionment.
“They feel whoever you put in there, they’re not going to change much,” he said. “When elected officials have failed you for so long, you give up.”
That’s what James Sykes, 59, who is White and identifies as Republican, told Stewart later that day as he canvassed a local trailer park.
“When it comes around election time, people want your vote. Then they’re gone,” said Sykes, an oil company trucker, who was doing yard work. “I don’t feel like I’m getting represented.” He told Stewart that he is undecided on the governor’s race.
Leah Wright, 56, a public school bus driver, came to see Presley speak in Biloxi last week wearing bifocals that were twisted and missing an arm. Wright said she hasn’t been to the eye doctor in five years because her deductible is $1,800.
Even with a government job and private health insurance, Wright can’t find a primary care doctor or get more than three of her adult daughter’s 13 prescriptions filled. She crosses the border to New Orleans, she said, where due to Medicaid expansion doctors are willing to treat her and pharmacies provide her daughter’s medications.
Without Medicaid expansion, she said, “Those of us without good insurance, we’re doomed.”
Last weekend, Presley visited Pike County Democrats in McComb, a town of 12,000 near the Louisiana border where civil rights activists were attacked while battling KKK voter intimidation in the 1960s. Presley connected with the Black crowd of about 50 by dwelling on his upbringing: How he was raised by a single mother who worked in a garment factory, struggled to pay the bills and had their water cut off after his father was murdered when he was 8-years-old.
“The fight in politics in Mississippi is not right versus left, and sometimes it’s not even Democrat versus Republican. It’s those of us on the outside versus those of them on the inside,” he said to murmurs of, “That’s right.”
Alicia Forrest said Presley’s appeal on class lines made her feel “a little emotional.”
“I’ve been to a lot of debates and heard a lot of people, but Brandon Presley touched me tonight,” said Forrest, 64, recalling how when she was a child, her family had their utilities cut off, too.
Presley doesn’t reference his famous cousin during stump speeches, and while some in the crowds joke about Elvis, their questions for the candidate are about where he stands on the issues.
Rev. DeVante Johnson, 27, said he has been reaching out to voters in his congregation, door knocking in McComb and surrounding Pike County. At a local housing project, he found residents of various ages “fired up” about how Reeves responded during the pandemic — refusing mask mandates and lockdowns — and how he has criticized Black Democrats’ management of the capital city, Jackson. He acknowledged that voters in the small railroad city of about 12,000 don’t know much about Presley, but, “They’re going to vote against Tate Reeves.”
Reeves, a financial analyst whose father founded a multimillion dollar heating and air conditioning company, grew up in the conservative Jackson suburbs. He has supported Trump including efforts to overturn the 2020 election and refused to acknowledge that President Biden was “lawfully” elected.
He’s counting on turning out his and Trump’s conservative base to win, particularly in the Jackson suburbs.
Jackson itself is blue, with a population of about 145,000 that’s more than 80 percent Black, according to the Census. But its metro area is much larger, about 580,000, the biggest in the state of about 3 million. Many live in the conservative suburbs where Reeves grew up, including Madison County, which he narrowly lost to Democrat Jim Hood, 50 percent of 49 percent, in 2019. Home to about 111,000 residents, Madison is 57 percent white, 38 percent Black, 3 percent Asian, according to the Census; about 12% of the county’s residents live below the poverty line.
On Wednesday, Reeves visited Madison to address a crowd of 235 at the monthly Grip N’ Grin at Mama Hamil’s Southern Soul Food. Some in the crowd were worried about moderate friends who said they were voting for Presley due to his stance on hospitals and Medicaid expansion. Others worried about Republican turn out.
Reeves warned the crowd not to be complacent.
“The radical left has decided they want to come in and buy the governor’s mansion,” he said to applause.
He urged his audience to not just vote, but to also contact fellow conservatives.
“If our people go vote, we are going to have an overwhelming victory,” he said, and if not, “It could be a close race.”
Tyler Pager, Scott Clement and Emily Guskin in Washington, contributed to this report.
A previous version of this article incorrectly said Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves (R) attended a monthly Grip N’ Grin at Mama Hamil’s Southern Soul Food sponsored by Madison County Real Republicans. Madison County Real Republicans advertised but did not sponsor the event, which is nonpartisan. The article has been corrected.
A previous version of this article incorrectly said Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves (R) won Madison County by 72 percent in 2019. Democrat Jim Hood won the county with 50 percent of the vote to Reeves’s 49 percent. The article has been corrected.