Mississippi GOP Gov. Tate Reeves Survives Spirited Democratic Challenge

Reeves’ Democratic opponent, Brandon Presley, ran on expanding Medicaid and cleaning up corruption.
Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves (R) turned the gubernatorial race into a referendum on the two parties in a state that leans strongly Republican.
Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves (R) turned the gubernatorial race into a referendum on the two parties in a state that leans strongly Republican.
Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press

Capitalizing on Mississippi voters’ contempt for the Democratic Party, Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves (R) overcame his personal unpopularity to win a second term in office on Tuesday.

Reeves defeated Democrat Brandon Presley, a public service commissioner and cousin to rock-n-roll pioneer Elvis Presley, who would have been the first Democrat to run the state in two decades.

Reeves won a majority of the vote, obviating the need for a runoff election that would have taken place on Nov. 28. Independent candidate Gwendolyn Gray dropped out of the race in October and endorsed Presley, but her name remained on the ballot. Gray’s presence on the ballot left a possibility, however remote, that neither major candidate would win outright in the first round.

To prevail, Presley would have needed to significantly drive up turnout among the 35% to 40% of eligible Black voters while peeling off just enough white swing voters ― an increasingly difficult task in a state where the vast majority of white voters are reliable conservative Republicans.

“Even if Tate Reeves is not the most popular, he’s still a Republican,” Marvin King, a political scientist at the University of Mississippi, told HuffPost in mid-October.

Reeves’ victory dashes the hopes of many Mississippians that a change in government would lead to expanding Medicaid to all working low-income adults, improved ethics rules and a better relationship between the state Capitol and Black residents.

Mississippi is one of just 10 states that have refused to accept federal funding from the Affordable Care Act to expand Medicaid for some 230,000 low-income residents without health insurance. The financial struggles of the state’s rural hospitals, 31 on the brink of collapse, added urgency to Presley’s core campaign promise.

“I don’t believe the state can weather another four years of Tate Reeves,” state Rep. Daryl Porter (D) told HuffPost in October. “I don’t believe our healthcare system can weather another four years of Tate Reeves. It’s on the brink of collapse.”

But Reeves, breaking with other top Republicans who have signaled openness to the idea, issued unfounded claims that expanding the program would jeopardize residents’ private coverage.

“It’s much like what President Obama said when he passed the Affordable Care Act: He said, ‘If you like your doctor, you can keep it,’” Reeves said in last Wednesday’s televised debate with Presley. “That didn’t turn out to be true.”

On paper, Presley seemed like the best possible candidate for Democrats ― and Reeves the weakest Republican target in memory.

Democrat Brandon Presley, a public service commissioner, tried to build a coalition of largely white swing voters and Black Democratic base voters.
Democrat Brandon Presley, a public service commissioner, tried to build a coalition of largely white swing voters and Black Democratic base voters.
Brandon Bell/Getty Images

While some Mississippi Democrats have been reluctant to campaign for Black votes for fear of alienating white voters, Presley prioritized outreach to Black residents. He made his case on Black radio stations and churches from Jackson to the Delta and at the tailgate parties of historically Black universities’ big football games. He got a boost from influential Black elected officials like U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, who appreciated his willingness to court Black voters more openly and aggressively than the previous Democratic gubernatorial nominee, Jim Hood.

“It’s well known that someone is more likely to vote when you ask them to vote,” said Byron Orey, a political scientist at Jackson State University, one of the HBCUs that Presley visited.

Meanwhile, Presley’s socially conservative views helped inoculate him from potent attacks in Mississippi. He is on record identifying as a “pro-life” abortion opponent since his first run for public service commission, which regulates the state’s utility companies, back in 2007. And while he initially spoke critically of the state’s blanket ban on gender-affirming medical treatment for minors, he subsequently said in a TV ad that he would not touch the current law and agrees with at least part of it on the merits.

Reeves’ reputation had also suffered because of his association with people involved in a 2020 scandal over distributing $77 million in cash welfare funds to well-connected Mississippians for bogus pet projects and no-show jobs. Presley hammered Reeves for firing a former federal prosecutor who the state had hired to claw back squandered welfare funds after the attorney began digging into the role of former Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant (R) and other top conservatives.

“The fight to me is not right versus left. It’s the people on the outside versus people on the inside,” Presley told reporters in Jackson in October, explaining why he identifies as a “populist.” “And right now, Tate Reeves is the poster child of insiders.”

Reeves, who was lieutenant governor when the welfare scheme first surfaced, noted that the scandal preceded his time as governor and claimed that he fired the attorney because the state needed a law firm with more resources to run the investigation.

Reeves also tried to deflect criticism of his ethics record by claiming that Presley had violated the law by accepting donations from employees of solar energy company Silicon Ranch, which he is charged with regulating. In fact, Silicon Ranch is not in itself a utility company; it provides electricity to state-regulated utilities. As a result, the donations were legal.

Nonetheless, Silicon Ranch needed and obtained approval from Mississippi’s Public Service Commission for a major project while Presley served. The appearance of a conflict of interest may have muddied the ethical contrast between Presley and Reeves enough to impact Presley’s standing.

Reeves was not without achievements to run on. He touted the state’s low unemployment rate and the largest increase in teacher pay in the state’s history.

Most of all, though, Reeves benefited from Mississippi’s strong Republican bent. No matter how much Presley emphasized his socially conservative views and penchant for tax cuts while avoiding any association with President Joe Biden, their shared party affiliation was simply a liability that Presley could not overcome.

Former President Donald Trump, who campaigned for Reeves in person in 2019, cut a TV ad endorsing him a week before Election Day. The endorsement, in a state that Trump carried by more than 16 points in 2020, helped Reeves frame the matchup as a referendum on the two parties rather than a contest between two individuals with different policy ideas.

“He’s gonna govern like Joe Biden has governed America,” Reeves said in his closing statement in last Wednesday’s debate. “And so if you believe in your heart that Joe Biden has done a good job as president, with inflation up by 20% on groceries, all prices up far greater than that ― if you believe Joe Biden’s done a good job, then he’s your man.”

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