Reeves avoids primary danger at filing deadline but faces November challenge

Mississippi’s Republican governor is expected to face Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley (D) in the general election.
Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves (R) (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves’s path to re-election this year became slightly clearer Wednesday, when no significant Republican primary challenger emerged by the filing deadline.

Several high-profile Republicans mulled bids to unseat the incumbent, who has a history of butting heads within the party. But Reeves has only a nominal challenge in the Aug. 8 primary, and he is now free to focus on a November matchup with Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley (D) in a race expected to be among the most expensive and contentious in the state’s recent history.

Reeves is the only Republican governor on the ballot in 2023, when three states — including GOP-leaning Kentucky and Louisiana — will elect chief executives. Republicans hope to sweep all three, sending a message at the outset of the 2024 cycle that features more opportunities for Republicans in governor races than Democrats.

Reeves, a conservative who has served in statewide office for almost 20 years, starts the red-state race as the favorite. Mississippi voted for former President Donald Trump by 16 points in 2020. Reeves previously served as state treasurer and then lieutenant governor.

But Democrats see him as potentially vulnerable in the aftermath of one of the state’s largest public corruption cases — the misuse of millions of dollars in welfare money during the previous administration — and a months-long water crisis in the majority Black city of Jackson.

Presley is a populist and distant relative of Elvis who proved his crossover appeal by winning elections in a predominately Republican district. Strategists from both sides of the aisle say he will be a formidable opponent.

“It’s a matter of whether or not the issues can trump the party brand,” said Democratic strategist Brad Chism, who is based in Mississippi. “If there is anyone who can do that, Brandon Presley could do it.”

Reeves enters the race with an enormous cash advantage. His campaign announced this week that he has $7.9 million in two campaign accounts.

Reeves consultant Brad Todd told Pluribus News that is more than $1 million more than Reeves had at this point in his first gubernatorial campaign in 2019. That year he won a competitive primary in a runoff and went on to beat then-Attorney General Jim Hood (D), who had led in polls for much of the race.

Bill Waller Jr., a former chief justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court, lost to Reeves in the 2019 runoff and strongly considered running again. But he announced Tuesday that he would not enter the race.

Reeves now has the advantage of running with a record of leading the state through a series of national disasters and the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Reeves’s term has included more challenges, probably, than any term of any governor in the history of the state,” Todd said.

Todd pointed to gains in 3rd and 4th grade reading scores, a teacher pay raise Tate approved in 2022, and capital investments such as state incentives for a new aluminum plant that is supposed to bring 1,000 new jobs to Northern Mississippi by 2022.

“He’s made it very clear from his first day as governor that his priority was to make Mississippi the best place to come and create new jobs,” Todd said.

Reeves is planning to campaign on the largest-ever state income tax cuts, which he signed in 2022, and his push to eliminate income taxes in the state entirely.

“2022 was perhaps the best year in Mississippi history,” Reeves said during his State-of-the-State address this week. “Today, it’s a cold-hard-fact that really, really good things are happening in Mississippi. And it’s my honor to stand before you today and announce that the state of our state is stronger than ever.”

Reeves has also embraced culture-war issues, promoting his leadership during the implementation of a strict abortion ban, and vowing to fight what he called during his address “a dangerous and radical movement that is now being pushed upon America’s kids.” That was a reference to pending legislation to ban gender-affirming procedures and drugs for anyone 18 or under.

Presley has criticized Reeves for cherry-picking economic statistics and blames Reeves’s opposition to Medicaid expansion for recent reports that over half of the state’s rural hospitals are at risk of closing.

“Mississippi is at the bottom of the nation for economic growth,” Presley said when he delivered the Democratic response to Reeves’s address. “We’re one of only three states that have lost population. And the numbers recently released by the bureau of labor statistics show zero job growth in the state of Mississippi.”

His campaign so far has relied heavily on references to an upbringing in what he calls a “no stoplight town,” in a home where, he says in campaign videos, “you could see straight through the floor to the dirt.” He is making a clear contrast with Reeves, a financial analyst whose father founded a multimillion-dollar company.

A Mississippi Today/Siena College poll of registered voters in January found that just 33% said they would vote to re-elect Reeves, while 10% said they were not sure or didn’t answer the question. Still, Reeves led Presley 43%-39%.

Presley, who also has a nominal primary challenger, reported $724,000 in cash on hand on Jan. 31. It remains to be seen whether national Democrats will invest heavily in the race.

This is the state’s first gubernatorial election since voters stripped a requirement in the 1890 state Constitution that a candidate for statewide office win not only the majority of the popular vote, but also a majority of the 122 state House districts, or else the election would be decided by the state House of Representatives.