JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Republican Gov. Tate Reeves is trying to win a second term in a conservative state where his party dominates, but challenger Brandon Presley has raised more money and is making an aggressive push to give Democrats a rare statewide victory in the Deep South.
Heading into Tuesday’s election, Reeves has been telling voters that Mississippi has momentum with job creation, low unemployment and improvements in education. He says liberal, out-of-state donors to Presley’s campaign are trying to change Mississippi.
“For you to believe Brandon Presley in anything that he says, you’ve got to believe that everything in Mississippi is bad,” Reeves said last week during the candidates’ only debate.
Presley, a state utility regulator and second cousin of the late rock ‘n’ roll icon Elvis Presley, says Reeves has hurt the state by refusing to expand Medicaid to cover people working lower-wage jobs that don’t provide health insurance. Presley also pledges to clean up government corruption, pointing to welfare money that was spent on pet projects for the wealthy and well connected rather than aid for some of the poorest people in one of the poorest states in the nation.
“He’s not going to open his mouth about ethics reform,” Presley said of Reeves. “He is the poster child of this broken, corrupt system.”
Republicans have held the Mississippi governorship for the past 20 years. They hold all statewide offices and a wide majority in the Legislature. The last time a Democrat won the presidential vote in Mississippi was 1976, when fellow Southerner Jimmy Carter was on the ballot.
Presley’s campaign has raised $11.3 million this year, compared with Reeves’ $6.3 million. But Reeves started the year with more money. By late October, Presley spent $10.8 million and still had $1.3 million, while Reeves spent $11 million and still had $1.2 million.
For the first time, Mississippi has the possibility of a runoff in the governor’s race if no candidate receives at least 50% of the vote. An independent candidate, Gwendolyn Gray, announced weeks ago that she was dropping out and endorsing Presley, but she did it after ballots were set.
Mississippi voters in 2020 repealed a Jim Crow-era method of electing a governor and other statewide officials, which required a candidate to win both the popular vote and a majority of the 122 state House districts. Without both, a race was decided by House members who were not obligated to vote as their districts did. Races were seldom decided by the House, but the method was written by white supremacists with the intent of keeping Black candidates out of office.
Reeves, 49, served two terms as state treasurer and two as lieutenant governor before winning an open race for governor in 2019.
Presley, 46, was mayor of his small hometown of Nettleton for six years before being elected in 2007 to the three-person Mississippi Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities.
Jimmy Ware of Natchez, a retired electrician who’s backing Presley, said the local Democratic Party and the NAACP plan a big push for Black turnout on Election Day.
“We’re going to give rides to the polls,” Ware said. “We’re going to go through the neighborhoods. We’re going to use our bullhorns. We’re going to do everything we can to get people to the polls.”
Heather McGee of Columbus, who owns a construction company, said she will vote for Reeves, as she did in 2019.
“After COVID and seeing how other states handled that and Tate handled it and just to see that we grew through it whereas other people took steps backwards,” McGee said. “There’s no way I would vote for anyone else after what he’s done.”
Reeves issued a stay-at-home order early in the pandemic, but he was reluctant to put long-term restrictions on schools and businesses, even as some hospitals were overwhelmed.
Mississippi voters are also electing other statewide officials.
Republican Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann faces a Democratic challenger who has spent little money, business consultant D. Ryan Grover. In a contentious Republican primary in August, Hosemann defeated state Sen. Chris McDaniel.
Republican Attorney General Lynn Fitch, whose office led the legal fight to overturn Roe v. Wade and change abortion access, is seeking a second term. She is challenged by Democrat Greta Kemp Martin, an attorney for Disability Rights Mississippi.