The story goes something like this.
Two guys on a hike see an angry bear and turn tail to run in the opposite direction. One guy proclaims helplessly, “We can’t outrun a bear,” to which the other replies, “I don’t have to outrun the bear, I just have to outrun you.”
Republican incumbent Gov. Tate Reeves hopes to make the 2023 general election, where he is likely to face Democrat Brandon Presley, like that hike in the woods.
Reeves hopes to make the race one where he does not have to convince the electorate to like him — he just has to convince voters to dislike him less than they dislike Presley.
No matter how often Reeves and his supporters want to shout “fake news” or “rigged polling,” the evidence is clear that the incumbent governor is not well-liked by Mississippi voters.
A recent Tulchin Research poll revealed that 54% of respondents had an unfavorable view of Reeves compared to 42% who viewed the incumbent governor favorably.
His favorability was even lower when respondents were quizzed about Reeves’ role in the ongoing scandal where at least $77 million in welfare funds were misspent, resulting in criminal convictions for some state officials, including people close to Reeves.
Perhaps more telling is a Siena College poll commissioned last month by Mississippi Today that found that 56% of poll participants would support “someone else” for governor this year, while 31% would support Reeves.
Recurring polls conducted by Morning Consult find that Reeves, since he’s been elected, is among the nation’s most disliked governors.
In the Tulchin poll, Presley surprisingly led Reeves 47% to 43%, while the incumbent led 43% to 38% in the Siena poll. At the very least, it appears right now the election will be close — surprisingly close for a Republican incumbent in Republican ruby red Mississippi.
These pollsters are not out to get Reeves. They are all legitimate national pollsters. Siena has been viewed as one of the most respected pollsters in the nation and was deemed as the most accurate in the 2022 midterm elections by the FiveThirtyEight blog, which compiles and analyzes polling data.
In the 2019 election, Reeves even seemed to acknowledge that a lot of folks did not like him, conceding that his willingness to say no to requests for state funding have made many people mad, especially as lieutenant governor where he presided over the Senate. Others say the fact that he is always in attack mode — often taking shots at political opponents when cooperation and humility could be a more appropriate response — turns off some voters.
The same Tulchin Research poll found that 39% had a favorable view of Presley while 18% viewed him unfavorable. The key is that most Mississippians do not know Presley, who has served as Northern District Public Service Commissioner since 2008. Reeves, on the other hand, is about as known a commodity as there is in Mississippi. He has run and won five statewide elections and is completing his 20th year in statewide elected office.
Reeves will strive to ensure that by the time he completes his sixth statewide campaign that Mississippi voters view Presley more negatively than they view him.
Reeves certainly has the money to create any negative narrative he wants. According to the January filings with the Secretary of State’s office, Reeves has about $8 million cash on hand. He raised $3.5 million during 2022.
That is a lot of money to create a narrative about an opponent.
Presley has just $723,800 cash on hand, including $365,000 raised during 2022.
Reeves’ huge cash advantage is one of the primary reasons he is viewed as the heavy favorite despite what polls might say right now. And the last quarter of a century, Mississippians’ default vote seems to always be Republican.
Presley will work to introduce himself to the state’s electorate as a conservative Democrat who is focused on improving health care, the economy and other state issues. Reeves will focus a lot more on social issues like abortion and immigration. He will publicly question whether Presley is more focused on LBGTQ issues, on open borders, on tearing down white Mississippians while trying to uplift African Americans, and on trying to close all police departments across the state.
But the real question of the 2023 campaign is whether the unfavorability bear will catch Presley or Reeves first.