NESHOBA COUNTY FAIR — The sheer intensity of crowd interaction at the Neshoba County Fair on Thursday largely overshadowed the traditional stump speeches from the two leading candidates for governor, signaling the arrival of an intense election cycle that will grip the state for the next four months.
Hundreds of supporters of incumbent Republican Gov. Tate Reeves and Democratic candidate Brandon Presley filled the Founder’s Square benches and fiercely interacted with the two candidates in a way that hasn’t been seen at the event in recent years.
Reeves’ supporters repeated loud “Tate!” chants during the governor’s speech, while Presley’s supporters shouted “Let’s go, Brandon!” when the Democrat delivered his 10-minute stump. And, at certain points, the two factions engaged in chant battles.
When Presley asked the crowd who they trusted to stand up for working Mississippians, Reeves’ faction shouted “Tate” to dump cold water on the Democrat’s speech.
And when Reeves concluded his speech, Presley supporters shouted, “Lock him up,” an apparent extension of their attempt to tie the governor to the welfare scandal, though prosecutors have not charged the governor with any crime connected to the issue.
The first-term governor, at one point during his speech, even used his allotted time to engage in a back-and-forth with a Presley supporter who was standing near the stage.
“To support him, you’ve got to believe we are on the wrong track,” Reeves said to the supporter. “You’ve got to believe that our culture is wrong and that our values are bad. You want to say yes to that, sir, because you believe it? You believe it, don’t you?”
While neither candidate delivered any new policy pitches, their messaging and starkly differing views of Mississippi’s present and future became crystal clear under the blistering July heat at one of the state’s longest-running political traditions.
Reeves staunchly defended his record as a conservative leader and attacked Democratic Party values while Presley attempted to cast the governor as a derelict politician who is numb to the difficulties average Mississippians deal with.
Reeves, running for a second term, rattled off accomplishments over the last four years, including recruiting new jobs to the state and improving education test scores.
“To hear Brandon’s fiction, Mississippi is just not very doing well,” Reeves said. “It’s all my fault. … He said, and I quote, ‘Under Tate Reeves’ leadership, we are moving in the wrong direction.’ That’s what Brandon Presley says. The math says that’s pure fiction.”
Presley, the current utility regulator for north Mississippi, panned the governor for not doing enough to keep health care infrastructure in the state from deteriorating and again reiterated to reporters his support for expanding Medicaid coverage to the working poor.
“Much like Nero of old, he’s fiddling while our hospitals are burning to the ground, and he doesn’t care,” Presley said of Reeves.
Reeves called Presley’s Medicaid expansion push a “welfare check” to poor Mississippians and later told reporters he believed the better approach was for more Mississippians to obtain private insurance coverage that tied to their careers.
The governor also tied Presley, a moderate Democrat, with other liberal candidates across the nation, such as California Gov. Gavin Newsom and former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, common rhetoric Reeves has used during the campaign.
Presley rejected that notion and said the governor was using that tactic as a smokescreen to keep from discussing real campaign issues.
Typical publicity stunts also made their way to the fairgrounds, with two Presley supporters donning orange jumpsuit costumes mimicking prison inmates to symbolize two of the governor’s donors who have pleaded guilty to crimes connected to the state’s welfare scandal.
The event also marked a rare instance in which all three GOP candidates for governor appeared in the same location.
Reeves is expected to capture the Republican nomination in the Aug. 8 primary election, though his two GOP opponents, David Hardigree and John Witcher, also delivered stump speeches on Thursday.
Hardigree, a retired military member, advocated for new efforts to crack down on crime throughout the state, and Witcher, a doctor, said he would work to enact conservative social policies such as putting Bibles in public school classrooms.
The winner of the primary will compete against Presley, the only Democratic candidate, in the general election on Nov. 6.