TUPELO — The strategy for President Donald Trump and prominent Mississippi Republicans on Friday night was simple: First, pointedly criticize national Democrats leading the impeachment inquiry of Trump, and second, find time to slip in a good word about Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves ahead of Tuesday’s governor’s race.
“We can’t re-elect Donald J. Trump on Tuesday night, but we can do the next best thing: elect Tate Reeves governor,” U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker told the crowd at the BancorpSouth Arena in downtown Tupelo after lambasting national Democrats for several minutes.
Trump’s visit — officially a rally for his own 2020 campaign — came just a day after the U.S. House of Representatives voted to formalize the impeachment process against the president. It was just the third time a sitting U.S. president has been subject to such a vote.
Trump, who enjoys high approval ratings in Mississippi, used the Tupelo rally to issue a bitter attack of national Democrats leading the inquiry and offer a passionate, off-the-cuff defense of his presidency.
“The radical left is determined to transform America into a country you would not recognize,” Trump said. “We are the ones standing in their way, and we will never get out of their way… Corrupt politicians Nancy Pelosi and Shifty Adam Schiff and the media are continuing with the deranged impeachment witch hunt.”
Trump, like prominent Mississippi Republicans who opened the event for the president, also spent a short portion of his speech boosting Reeves’ candidacy. Standing shoulder to shoulder with Trump, Reeves spoke from the stage for about three minutes.
Reeves faces Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood in Tuesday’s general election for governor. Republicans have called the Governor’s Mansion home since 2003, though pundits and public polling on both sides of the aisle suggest Hood poses a substantial threat to that succession.
Trump’s appearance in Tupelo was strategic in that northeast Mississippi is a key battleground region in Tuesday’s governor’s race. Hood, the Democrat from Chickasaw County, has traditionally earned many votes in his home region. Before the Tupelo rally on Friday, a crew of prominent state Republicans including Gov. Phil Bryant and GOP Chairman Lucien Smith hosted a bus tour of the region.
In 2016, Trump performed better in the region than any Republican in modern political history, and Republican leaders hope his visit could solidify those numbers for Reeves and boost voter enthusiasm.
“If you want a far left Democrat running Mississippi — wait a minute, how is this guy… I can’t believe this is a competitive race. I’m talking to Mississippi, I can’t believe it,” Trump said of Hood and the close governor’s race. “I don’t think (Hood) is going to be the right guy. I think the right guy is Tate Reeves. He will be a great governor.”
Several times during the evening, the raucous crowd became louder and more engaged when Trump or impeachment came up and remained more subdued when Reeves and the governor’s race came up.
Photo gallery: Trump rally in Tupelo
The strategy of bastardizing national liberals on display at the rally on Friday night has been the consistent formula for Reeves himself during his campaign this year.
“The political fight that we have before us in 2019 is with the liberal policies and the liberal ideas of the party of Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi and Jim Hood,” Reeves said on Jan. 3 when he officially launched his gubernatorial campaign.
Attendees of the rally filled the arena, which has a seating capacity of 10,000. Some were turned away after capacity was reached. Visitors traveled from other states, including Tennessee, Alabama and Louisiana, to see the president in person. Most people conceded they fought the long lines in the chilly weather to see Trump, not Reeves. Some people lined up at 3 a.m. Friday morning, 16 hours before the 7 p.m. rally.
“I really haven’t followed a lot of politics except the president,” said Dana Rucker, wearing the familiar “Make America Great Again” cap.
Tiffany Elzie left work in Holly Springs at 1 p.m. to attend the rally. Elzie was one of the few black people to attend Friday’s event, and said she will vote for Trump next year, just as she did in 2016.
“I don’t always agree with him, but I think he’s doing a great job,” she said. “He’s not scripted and he says what he means.”
Her support was not as unwavering at the state level, however — Elzie said although she liked what she’s heard from Attorney General Jim Hood, Reeves’ opponent, she won’t vote Democratic. When asked if she intended to vote for the lieutenant governor, she said “I’ll have to, but I don’t like Tate – I was a (former Chief Justice Bill) Waller fan. Tate seems kind of cocky to me.”
Colleen Marion of Meridian shared the same mentality. Before entering the arena she posed with a cardboard cutout of the president and said she supports Trump, but she said she will vote for Reeves because “he’s the better option of the two.”
Dawn Rosamond of Tupelo said she could not see the president about a year ago when he held an outdoor rally at the Tupelo Municipal Airport to campaign for U.S. Senate candidate Cindy Hyde-Smith.
“I just wanted to come out to support the president,” she said. Of Reeves she said, “I think he will do a good job. I know he will be elected, anyway.”
Hood, the current attorney general, held a news conference Friday afternoon in Tupelo — about 30 minutes from his home in Houston. He said people in his home area know he is “a moderate.” At the news conference with Tupelo Mayor Jason Shelton, a Hood supporter, he said, “I think they will stick with me.”
There were likely people among the roughly 10,000 at the Trump-Reeves rally who had voted for Hood in the past, though Mississippi Today could not find them Friday night.
“I have voted for Democrats in the past, but not in a long time,” said Dwayne Johnson of Belmont, who retired from the military and is now manager of a string of restaurants.
His buddy, also ex-military, Chris Buckius of Fulton, praised Trump, but said of Reeves: “What I heard has not been that good honestly, but I am starting to do a lot of research.”