Competitive gubernatorial stretch run still favors Reeves

Published 8:30 am Wednesday, October 18, 2023

By Sid Salter

In incumbent Democratic Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley, Mississippi Democrats have found their most formidable gubernatorial nominee in this century. However competitive the 2023 race, the numbers still favor Republican incumbent Gov. Tate Reeves.

Both current polling results and the state’s voting history bolster that assessment. Current polling (Siena poll Aug. 20–28, Mason-Dixon poll Sept. 27–Oct. 2) show Reeves with leads over Presley of from 8% to 11%. The nation’s most reliable and reputable election prognosticators (Cook Political Report, Inside Elections with Nathan Gonzales, and the University of Virginia’s Larry Sabato) rate the race as “likely Republican or lean Republican.”

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Presley is affable, approachable, diligent and stays on brand and on message. Despite never having sought statewide office, Presley is poised to perhaps out-perform the 2019 Mississippi Democratic gubernatorial nominee Jim Hood – who prior to that race statewide voters elected and re-elected attorney general four times in 2003, 2007, 2011 and 2015 by an average of 59.73% of the vote.

But Hood fell far short of that average in his gubernatorial bid. In the 2019 gubernatorial race, even after a pair of bruising Republican gubernatorial primary races with Judge Bill Waller Jr. and Robert Foster, Reeves defeated Hood in the general election 51.91% to 46.83% with a 1.25% split between two minor party candidates.

Presley could well out-perform Hood against Reeves and still lose. Personalities and track records aside, the vote-getting performance of Democratic gubernatorial candidates in general election races has steadily declined in the current century.

In 1987, Democrat Ray Mabus took 53.44% to 46.56% for Republican Jack Reed Sr. Mabus is the last Mississippi Democrat to be elected governor with north of 50% of the vote. Ronnie Musgrove in 1999 was the last Democrat elected governor of Mississippi – winning a plurality of 49.6% of the vote against GOP nominee Mike Parker with 48.5% of the vote with the rest split between two minor party candidates.

Parker – the last Republican gubernatorial nominee to lose a modern-era general election in Mississippi – is notably now a quarter-century later on TV supporting Presley and attacking Reeves.

Then there is the overall partisan measure of voter behavior in Mississippi – which since the era of Richard Nixon has become a solid Republican state in presidential and congressional voting.

Mississippi has voted Republican in every presidential election since 1972 save one – supporting the 1976 Democratic candidacy of fellow Southern Jimmy Carter against sitting Republican President Gerald Ford.

In the 2016 presidential election, Republican Donald Trump took 57.86% of Mississippi’s votes against Democrat Hillary Clinton with 40.06 percent – a margin almost 12% better than Trump got nationally. In 2020, Mississippi voters gave Trump 57.60% against eventual winner President Joe Biden.

In the 2019 gubernatorial race, Trump made a late campaign visit to DeSoto County and tweeted his “complete & total endorsement” of Reeves as the Republican nominee for Mississippi governor. Regardless of Trump’s ongoing battles in the courts and his fortunes in the 2024 Republican presidential primaries, it can be said that the so-called “Trump Train” is still on the track for many Mississippi voters.

Beyond those realities of voter performance and behavior, Republicans hold all eight statewide offices and strong majorities in both houses of the Mississippi Legislature. The GOP holds both of the state’s U.S. Senate seats and three of four of the state’s U.S. House seats.

For both Presley and Reeves, social media and the Web have sounded the death knell for politicians claiming to be “Mississippi Democrats” or “Mississippi Republicans.” Candidates now must own their party affiliations and let the chips fall.

The wild cards are how impactful the national partisan debates are on the Mississippi governor’s race and how much of the deluge of negative TV ads lobbed by both sides stuck on the issues of the state’s hospital crisis, public corruption concerns and culture wars.

The governor’s race feels tighter than the polling indicates, and Presley’s late surge of campaign cash has caused a stir. But three weeks out from the election, Reeves remains the favorite.

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at