FILE - Northern District Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley, speaks about the Mississippi Public Service Commission securing a $300 million settlement with Entergy Mississippi, a integrated energy company on June 23, 2022, in Jackson, Miss. Presley, a Democrat, said Thursday, Jan. 12, 2023, that he is running for Mississippi governor. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, File)
It ultimately comes down to this: winning Republicans will require proving a degree of conservatism. This will likely lose some Democratic voters, along with the Democratic money needed to compete. On the flipside, not trying to win over some Republican voters is electoral suicide in Mississippi. It’s quite the Catch-22.
Two polls have been released to date on the Mississippi Governor’s race. The first, commissioned by Mississippi Today and performed by Siena College, put incumbent Republican Gov. Tate Reeves up by 4 points over challenger Brandon Presley.
The second, commissioned by the progressive Southern Poverty Law Center and performed by Tulchin Research, put Presley ahead of Reeves by 4 points.
Both polls raise some questions. Siena polled registered voters versus likely voters, a distinction that can impact accuracy if the goal is to project who might actually prevail. Tulchin has a grand total of 3 analyzed polls at 538 pollster rankings and a 67 percent accuracy rating.
Regardless, both polls generated conversation among political insiders, who wonder if Presley could pull off the upset in Mississippi. Nothing is impossible, but recent history suggests it is unlikely.
Presley starts the race with low name ID. 61% of respondents in the Mississippi Today/Siena College poll said they did not know enough about him to have an opinion. He also starts with one-tenth of Gov. Reeves’ cash-on-hand.
To become viable, Presley will have to quickly raise enough money to tell the people of Mississippi who he is. While he is attempting to introduce himself, Reeves will no doubt use some of his considerable war chest to paint Presley in less flattering terms.
Even if he can define himself before Reeves does, the path forward for Presley will be a tightrope act, with challenging party, money, and demographic dynamics.
What Does Jim Hood’s Loss to Reeves Portend for Presley
In 2019, many politicos gave then-Attorney General Jim Hood the best chance of ending the Republican gubernatorial run that started with Haley Barbour in 2003. Hood was a good old boy from Northeast Mississippi. He filmed ads shooting guns. Hood talked about his faith. He was pro-life.
Hood also had the advantage of being elected to statewide office four times. He had high name ID and a pool of wealthy plaintiffs’ attorneys from across the country in his donor rolodex. Hood’s supporters pointed to polls, as early as 2018 and as late as September of 2019, that showed him leading the race.
In the end, he lost by more than 5 points to Reeves, who came off a bloody Republican primary. Reeves faces no Republican challengers this year. He will be able to focus exclusively on Presley, after the Democratic Party disqualified two African American challengers.
Read More: Democrats Create Headaches Cutting Presley Challengers
Read More: Axed Democratic Challenger to Presley Threatens Party with Lawsuit
Like Hood, Presley is a good old boy from Northeast Mississippi. Like Hood, he has claimed the mantle of being a person of faith, pro-life, and pro-gun. Unlike Hood, he does not have high name ID or a rolodex of wealthy plaintiffs’ attorneys.
Presley, 45, has been a bachelor for most of his life. He announced an engagement in December of 2022, but will lack the cute family photos that often adorn direct mail and campaign ads. This may seem superficial, and at some level it is, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t count to voters as something that makes a candidate relatable.
What Presley has more of than Hood is likability. He comes across humble and genuine. He is good on the stump. It’s easy to imagine him sitting on a front porch spinning tails with a deep southern drawl and a glass of sweet tea. That’s not nothing. It’s probably also not enough.
Messaging Minefield Creates a Catch-22
To have any chance, Presley needs to convince a segment of Republican voters that he is not that different from them. He needs to do that while exciting Democratic voters, which are predominantly African American, and convincing national Democratic donors that he is both viable and adequately progressive.
The difficulty Presley will face came into focus this week. Gov. Reeves signed into law the REAP Act on Wednesday. The bill prohibits physicians from providing gender reassignment treatments to minors. When questioned by the Clarion Ledger about his thoughts on the REAP Act, Presley’s campaign did not answer, instead focusing on Medicaid expansion.
One might argue that this is a disciplined pivot. One might also recognize that it is a sign of fear that one wrong word might place him at odds with a constituency he needs to have any shot. It’s not hard to imagine overwhelming majorities of Republicans, and candidly many Democrats, supporting restrictions on sex changes for minors.
It’s also not hard to imagine that a national Democratic Party that is pro-abortion, anti-gun, and pro-trans rights would be slow to write blank checks to a candidate that was none of those things.
Potential Trouble with Party Leadership
Unlike Presley, the Mississippi Democratic Party was unafraid to take a stand against the REAP Act:
The letter is either emblematic of where Presley actually stands, which would be bad for attracting Republican voters, or it highlights a rift between Presley and the more progressive element driving his political party.
It ultimately comes down to this: winning Republicans will require proving a degree of conservatism, which will likely lose Democratic voters, along with the Democratic money needed to compete. On the flipside, not trying to win over some Republican voters is electoral suicide. It’s quite the Catch-22.
The Democratic Party must also signal to national Democratic donors that it is capable of aiding its nominee. A series of unforced errors of late, including missing the deadline to submit candidate paperwork, might make national donors weary.
Read More: MS Democratic Party Missed Deadline to Submit Candidates’ Paperwork
Challenging Demographic Dynamics
Mississippi’s population of white Democrats has dwindled over the years. As the national Democratic Party has become more progressive, it has become increasingly evident that winning political office in the state is far easier with an “R” next to your name.
The result is a historic slew of white Democrats switching parties in the last decade. At the conclusion of this year’s election cycle, there will likely be one white Democrat left in the 122 member Mississippi House and two white Democrats left in the 52 member Mississippi Senate.
Party divides in Mississippi, increasingly and unfortunately, look like racial divides. In a 2021 interview with Politico, Democratic political strategist Brannon Miller explained that when the Democratic Party tries to win over white voters in Mississippi, it loses Black ones. Miller said when a candidate goes after Black votes, he loses white ones. “It’s like playing whack a mole.”
To Miller’s point, Mississippi Democratic Party Chairman Tyree Irving expressed a desire, in the same Politico report, for the party to move left and lean into its Black base of support. Irving said, “[i]t is an insult to think or suggest that Black Democrats should do more to elect white Democrats to statewide office without the white candidate putting forth a policy agenda that addresses the needs and concerns of Black Democrats.”
Presley, who is white, must convince African American Democrats that he is worth getting enthused over. To do that he must demonstrate that he sufficiently understands the concerns of a population that cannot be treated as one homogenous block.
Rural Versus Urban
Demographic challenges for Presley won’t be limited to racial divides. Rural America has largely shifted against the Democratic brand in the last decade.
Democrat strategist, turned Mississippi resident, James Carville has previously explained that the Party’s challenges in Mississippi is that Democrats, more broadly, aren’t reaching the rural population, white or Black. Carville said, “In a state with not many urban centers it makes it difficult.”
There’s arguably no better example of this shift than the region from whence both Hood and Presley hail. In 1999, the last year Democrats won the Governor’s mansion, Northeast Mississippi still reliably voted Democrat. By time the 2019 race rolled around, Democratic support had dropped dramatically, even with a native son on the ballot.
|County||Musgrove in 1999||Hood in 2019|
No Real Urban Centers to Make Up the Difference
In other traditionally red states that have become more purple, like Georgia, the population is more concentrated in urban centers. Places like Atlanta have experienced large influxes of white, progressive Democrats. In concert with minority populations, this influx can turn the Democratic Party viable.
Both the urban centers and the in-migration of more liberal whites simply is not at play in Mississippi. Presley’s best hope may be catching John Bell Edwards’ lightning in a bottle. Edwards, a Democrat from neighboring Louisiana, has been able to twice pull off wins for Governor in a deep red state.
But the dynamics for Edwards still include a combined concentration of African American and more liberal white Democratic voters in cities like New Orleans. Jackson simply is not the equivalent of either Atlanta or New Orleans.
How It Ends
All of that said, Presley is a serious candidate and a good retail politician. My suspicion is that he will make as good of a race of this as a Democrat candidate can in Mississippi. It would not surprise me if he performs equal to or slightly better than Jim Hood. Then again, it would not surprise if he under-performs Hood. What would surprise me is if he can beat Reeves once ads start rolling and people start paying attention.