Presley, Democrats unable to turn hype turnout

Published 6:20 am Wednesday, November 15, 2023

By Sid Salter

Incumbent Democratic Northern District Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley was arguably the most formidable gubernatorial nominee of his party in the last three decades. But in the Nov. 7 Mississippi general election, he joined the extensive list of failed Mississippi Democratic gubernatorial contenders. 

Presley ran an outstanding campaign that was flush with almost $12 million in campaign contributions. He worked hard. His populist political speaking skills are unmatched in the state, and he matched incumbent Republican Gov. Tate Reeves in TV ads, social media posts and other digital media. 

Email newsletter signup

For all the media hype surrounding his bid for the Governor’s Mansion at the state and national level, Presley ran what turned out to be a rather average campaign taking about 47 % of the vote against Reeves. History bears that out. 

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 over 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. 

In 1991, Mabus lost to Republican Kirk Fordice with 47.59 % of the vote. 1995 saw Democrat Dick Molpus lose to Fordice with 44.44 %. Again, Musgrove won in 1999 with a 49.6 % plurality but lost to Republican Haley Barbour in 2003 with 45.8 %. Democrat John Arthur Eaves Jr. lost to Barbour in 2007 with 42.1% 

In 2011 and 2015, Republican Phil Bryant held his Democratic challengers to 39 % and 32.38 % respectively. In 2019, Reeves defeated Democrat Jim Hood 51.91% to 46.83% with a 1.25% split between two minor party candidates. 

From the 1991 through the 2023 Mississippi gubernatorial general elections, Democratic nominees have earned an average of 43.82 % of the vote. Presley bested that average but not appreciably so. To be fair, independent Gwendolyn Gray’s presence on the ballot took 1.4 % likely from Presley.  

So where do the 2023 gubernatorial election results leave Mississippi? Republicans control all eight statewide elective positions, super-majorities in both houses of the Mississippi Legislature and five of the six congressional posts on Capitol Hill. While outright Medicaid expansion may still be a heavy lift in Jackson, the Legislature does appear open to providing help for the state’s rural hospitals and to policies that will bolster healthcare access for the working poor in the state.  

Reeves will continue to appoint the leadership of the state agency bureaucracy and fill the judicial vacancies. Few in state history have more practical experience in state government – two terms each as state treasurer, lieutenant governor, and now governor – than Reeves.  

In both his gubernatorial bids, Reeves held his ground against the strongest Democrats available.  

For Mississippi Democrats, the path forward is less certain. In Hood and Presley, the party put before the electorate what many of them believed were the best two available candidates. Hood was elected attorney general statewide four times before making his bid. Presley had historic financial resources available to him in his bid to go along with his retail political skills. 

Where do state Democrats go from here? And will out-of-state groups invest that much money in a Democratic gubernatorial bid in 2027? 

Ironically, Reeves in 2019 and 2023 dominated in the Northeast Mississippi region that is home to both Presley and Hood. Heavily Democratic Hinds County, the state’s most populous county, was supposed to have been Presley’s stronghold. Hinds County, however, failed to provide sufficient ballots to meet the demand of the county’s voters. 

But in the final analysis, it would seem that the Presley camp failed to devise and execute a discernible and effective political ground game to get their voters to the polls. Canvasing, direct mail, microtargeting, but in rural states like Mississippi that’s mostly knocking on doors. 

Turnout was down overall on Nov. 7 and that was ultimately the story of the race. Reeves and the GOP effectively turned out their vote while Presley and the Democrats did not. 

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at