Supporters and potential voters listen as Brandon Presley, the Democratic candidate for governor, speaks at St.Luke M.B. Church in Dundee, Miss., Wednesday, May 3, 2023. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

This year the political eyes of the nation will be fixed on Mississippi, Kentucky and Louisiana, three reliably Republican states, as they elect their governors and other statewide officials.

The three Southern states share the distinction of being the nation’s only states to elect their governors in the off year between the federal mid-term elections and the presidential elections.

In 2019, Louisiana and Kentucky stunned the nation by electing Democratic governors. In Kentucky, Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear defeated incumbent Republican Gov. Matthew Bevin, while in Louisiana Democratic incumbent Gov. John Bel Edwards won a second term. In Mississippi, of course, Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves defeated Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood by about 5%, or 45,000 votes.

This year, Beshear is considered a favorite to win a second term for the Democrats in Kentucky. Edwards cannot seek reelection because of term limits and the Republicans are favored to regain the governorship in Louisiana. In Mississippi, the Republican incumbent Reeves has to be considered the favorite against his November challenger, Democratic Northern District Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley.

Democrats can only hope that what happened in Kentucky in 2019 occurs in Mississippi in 2023. There are some similarities between Kentucky in 2019 and Mississippi in 2023 in terms of the governor’s election.

In Kentucky in 2019, a Democrat challenger with a well known last name upended an unpopular Republican incumbent. The Beshear name was known because Steven Beshear, the father of the incumbent governor who was elected in 2019, served two terms as governor from 2008 until 2016.

While Presley’s father, of course, never served as governor, he does possess a well known last name. Who is a better known Mississippian than Presley’s cousin, Elvis?

Reeves often is cited in polls as one of the least popular governors in the nation. Granted, his poll numbers have not been nearly as bad as the poll numbers Kentucky Republican incumbent Matthew Bevin had before the 2019 election.

Still, polls often spell out Reeves’ vulnerabilities, such as a Siena College/Mississippi Today poll in January highlighting 57% of voters would prefer someone other than Reeves as governor.

And the public, based on polling, strongly supports Presley’s position to eliminate the tax on groceries, fully fund the Mississippi Adequate Education formula that provides state support for public education, and to expand Medicaid. Reeves opposes those issues which are important to Mississippi voters, according to polling.

Despite the possible warning signs found in the polls, it is hard to ignore the fact that Reeves has run statewide five times and has never been defeated.

And a key difference between Mississippi in 2023 and Kentucky in 2019 is that Beshear had run for and won the statewide office of attorney general, so voters throughout Kentucky were familiar with him. Presley has never run for a statewide office, having been elected four times in the northern third of the state. A key question is: Will Presley have the funds against a well financed incumbent like Reeves to get his name and message before the voters?

In other words, despite what happened in Louisiana and Kentucky, Reeves still would be considered the heavy favorite in November. At some point, though, Mississippi will again elect a Democratic governor. Kentucky and Louisiana proved it could be done in deep Republican Southern states.

And on the surface, both Kentucky and Louisiana are more Republican than Mississippi. In both 2016 and 2020, Trump performed better in Kentucky and Louisiana than in Mississippi. In the 2020 presidential election, Mississippians voted for Republican Donald Trump over Democrat Joe Biden by a 17% margin. Trump won Kentucky by a 26% margin and captured Louisiana by a 19% margin.

Yet only a year earlier, both Kentucky and Louisiana shocked the political world and elected Democratic governors.

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Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.