Familiar Democratic echoes heard in Presley’s challenge

Published 3:00 pm Wednesday, January 18, 2023

By Sid Salter

In a Jan. 12 email announcing that he is challenging incumbent Republican Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves for the state’s top job, Democratic Northern District Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley said in the final paragraph: “If you make me your Governor, I promise you this: I’ll never forget who I am, where I came from, or who sent me.”

Attached to the email was one of the better professionally produced political branding videos Mississippi voters have ever received, a message that seeks to tell Presley’s story in a way that lays out his values, vision and reasons for seeking the job. 

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Presley’s promise – “I’ll never forget who I am, where I came from, or who sent me” – is a familiar one that has been used in the past by other politicians – both here in Mississippi and nationally.

Thirty-five years ago, in 1988, that exact pledge was the campaign slogan of former Democratic Fourth District Congressman Wayne Dowdy of McComb when he made a bid to succeed then-U.S. Sen. John C. Stennis, D-DeKalb, in a general election battle with then-Republican Fifth District Congressman Trent Lott of Pascagoula. Lott won that contest with just under 54 percent of the vote.

That year, Lott was unopposed in the GOP primary while Dowdy had a tough Democratic primary battle with Dick Molpus. The general election race featured the more polished, buttoned-down Lott against a pure populist in radio station mogul and attorney Dowdy.

Christian Science Monitor writer Marshall Ingwerson observed: “Mr. Lott, the Republican from growing coastal Mississippi, is brassy and gregarious, backslapping his way through Kiwanis luncheons and chamber of commerce speeches, telling old jokes well. Mr. Dowdy, lean and slightly rumpled, is a mild, earnest, deep-country sort (and a wealthy radio station owner) – Abe Lincoln played by Jimmy Stewart.”

The 2023 Presley campaign slogan was also famously used – and it was again the exact rhetoric Presley in his announcement – in the 1990 Oregon U.S. Senate race between incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Mark Hatfield and his Democratic challenger Harry Lonsdale. Lonsdale, a wealthy scientist and businessman, was a pro-abortion atheist who would make three failed bids for the U.S. Senate from Oregon. The GOP’s Hatfield turned back Democrat Lonsdale’s challenge.

Slogans aside, Presley is a formidable candidate for Mississippi Democrats. He is smart, hard-working and one of the best remaining populist political orators. He would be about as comfortable behind a pulpit as he is on the political stump, and he’s spent his life preparing for a statewide political opportunity. 

That said, Presley faces any number of roadblocks and obstacles. Reeves has amassed a substantial campaign war chest well north of $5 million and can rather easily raise more. Reeves can turn on the fundraising taps within the GOP framework and also from the state’s business and industrial community. 

The track record of the national Democratic Party supporting its own nominees financially in statewide races rather speaks for itself. While having an incumbent Democrat in the White House may help Presley’s bid, the ability to fundraise at this level and to successfully finance and operate a statewide campaign is an untested skill set for Presley – whose races have been municipal or sectional.

The best-known and best-financed Mississippi Democrat to run for governor since former Democratic Gov. Ronnie Musgrove in 1999 was former Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood, who lost to Reeves by 5.1 percent in 2019. Even then, Hood was at a substantial campaign finance disadvantage.

Reeves has been running and winning statewide elections in Mississippi since 2003. The upcoming campaign will mark his 6th consecutive statewide election and statewide voters have consistently returned him to office.

The primary question for Reeves going into 2023 is, in fact, the primaries. Will the governor face a challenge in the GOP primaries and what impact would a challenge have on his current campaign finance, name ID and incumbency advantages?

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at sidsalter@sidsalter.com