Democratic nominee Brandon Presley has made the Mississippi gubernatorial contest a real race.
The state has long been a GOP bastion, but Presley has campaigned on issues like Medicaid expansion.
Republican Gov. Tate Reeves is still favored in this deep red state, but the race is seen as close.
At first glance, the Mississippi governor's race may not have appeared to be competitive.
Republican Gov. Tate Reeves, a known commodity in the state, is seeking reelection. The Deep South state, known for its conservatism, has not supported a Democrat for governor since Ronnie Musgrove's 1999 victory. And the last Democratic presidential nominee to win the state was Jimmy Carter in 1976.
But the 2023 contest is unlike any other gubernatorial race in Mississippi in over 20 years, with Democratic gubernatorial nominee Brandon Presley (yes, he's a second cousin of Elvis Presley) running a strikingly competitive campaign against Reeves.
Recent polling has showed a tightened race: A Magnolia Tribune/Mason-Dixon poll released in early October showing Reeves up by 8 points (51%-43%). And Public Policy Polling, a Democratic-leaning firm, released a poll in late October showing Reeves ahead by only 1 point (46%-45%).
The race fundamentally still favors Reeves. But how could Presley actually pull off what would be an enormous upset?
A profile that fits the state
Even when Democrats dominated Mississippi politics, the party was more conservative than their national counterparts.
So it isn't shocking that Presley is antiabortion and strongly backs gun rights, positions that are in line with broad swaths of the electorate.
A Mississippi public service commissioner and the former mayor of the small town of Nettleton, Presley has a political background rooted in the rural stretches of a state that for decades has struggled to tackle its nearly 20% poverty rate.
While most voters in Mississippi may not care for national Democrats (including some Democrats), Presley has effectively presented himself as a different kind of Democrat. That matters.
The significance of the Black vote
Like many of its Deep South neighbors, the voting results in Mississippi are often racially polarized — to such a degree that it is extremely difficult for Democrats to win statewide races.
Black voters in Mississippi overwhelmingly support Democratic candidates, while white voters largely back GOP candidates.
In the 2020 presidential election, the Mississippi electorate was 69% white, and then-President Donald Trump won that group 81%-18% over now-President Joe Biden, according to AP VoteCast. Black voters made up 29% of the statewide electorate that year and Biden won their vote 94%-5% over Trump. Overall, Trump won the state by roughly 16 points.
Turning out the Black vote will be essential for Presley, which he has recognized since the beginning of his campaign. Presley has heavily courted Black voters, which has included visits to churches and the state's Historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs).
Black Mississippians represent 38% of the state's population, according to the US Census. The figure represents the highest Black population percentage in the country.
But Black voters have often felt dismissed in state politics.
In 2019, Democratic gubernatorial nominee Jim Hood underperformed in several of the state's majority-Black jurisdictions in the Delta compared to the support that Democratic Senate candidate [and former US agriculture secretary] Mike Espy had received in a special election a year earlier.
Hood, a former four-term attorney general, remains the most successful statewide Mississippi Democrat of the past 20 years. But his gubernatorial campaign was criticized by many Democrats for its focus on peeling off Republicans and conservative-leaning independents at the expense of wooing the party's base voters.
Hood went on to lose to Reeves by 5 points.
Mississippi is not Georgia
Presley visited all 82 counties in Mississippi during his campaign. Why does that matter so much?
A majority of Mississippi's population (54%) is rural, according to Mississippi State University.
So having an opportunity to meet with a candidate can go a long way in the more rural locales, which in recent decades have supported Republicans up and down the ballot.
A major Democratic political breakthrough in 2020 was Biden's electoral win in Georgia, a Deep South state that had long backed GOP presidential nominees. But Biden's victory was fueled by increased Democratic strength in the populous Atlanta suburbs, with voting behemoths like Cobb, DeKalb, and Gwinnett counties giving him advantages that previous party nominees could only have dreamed about.
Mississippi has no such singular Democratic-leaning equivalent — in terms of the sheer population and voting power — to a Fulton County or one of the major suburban counties surrounding Atlanta. So in order for Presley to win, he needs to remain competitive in rural Mississippi while also running up the score in medium-sized Democratic strongholds like Jackson.
Presley can't rely mostly on an urban-suburban coalition to put him over the top, so his rural visibility is key.
The barriers to win have eased
For generations, successful Mississippi gubernatorial candidates had to win not only a majority of the vote but also a majority of the 122 state House districts, a feat that put Democratic candidates at a huge disadvantage given the party's concentrated vote in urban areas.
In 1999, Musgrove fell slightly short (49.6%) in securing a majority of the popular vote; the Democrat also carried exactly half (61) of the 122 state House districts. So the Mississippi House — which at the time was controlled by Democrats — was required by law to make a final decision and the body selected Musgrove in a 86-36 vote over then-GOP gubernatorial nominee Michael Parker. (Parker endorsed Presley's gubernatorial campaign.)
Mississippi voters in 2020 repealed the 1890s-era provision which mandated that statewide candidates had to win a majority of state House districts, so this year's gubernatorial election will simply require the victor to win a majority of the popular vote.
Structural geographic disadvantages remain a lingering issue for Mississippi Democrats, but Presley has a real chance at overcoming that dynamic on Tuesday.
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