Gov. Tate Reeves speaks to media during the 2023 Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Miss., Thursday, July 27, 2023. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

Republican Gov. Tate Reeves handily defeated two GOP primary challengers Tuesday, officially setting up what is expected to be a bitter and expensive November general election campaign against Democratic utility regulator Brandon Presley.

Reeves earned the right to advance to the November general election with a comfortable victory in Tuesday’s Republican primary against two lesser known candidates, John Witcher of Flowood and David Grady Hardigree of Jackson, who lacked funding and name identification.

Reeves hardly mentioned his GOP primary challengers in recent weeks, instead opting to focus his attention on Presley, the 46-year-old, four-term Northern District Public Service commissioner.

Presley was the only Democratic candidate on the ballot on Tuesday, ensuring that he would automatically secure his party’s nomination.

The Associated Press, which collects and publishes election results, called the race for Reeves about an hour and a half after polls closed.

“I am truly honored that Mississippi Republicans have once again put their trust in me to lead our party in this year’s Governor’s race,” Reeves said in a statement soon after being declared the winner. “Mississippi has momentum, and now is the time to unite as a state to keep that going into this year’s general election.”

While Reeves’ margin of victory was comfortable, he still faced a tougher primary election for a second term than did the past two Republican governors, Phil Bryant and Haley Barbour. Both sailed through their primaries with more than 90% of the vote before winning by a comfortable margin in their general election efforts.

Still, Tuesday’s results were much less stressful for Reeves than the party primary in 2019 in his first gubernatorial election. In a surprise outcome in the 2019 Republican primary, Reeves was forced to a runoff after he could not capture a majority of the votes against former Supreme Court Chief Justice Bill Waller Jr.

Reeves, 49, is running his sixth statewide campaign. He has vied for five previous statewide posts — two for treasurer, two for lieutenant governor and one for governor — and has never lost an election.

Reeves has portrayed himself so far as a conservative leader who has championed cutting the income tax while associating Presley with other Democratic candidates across the country like California Gov. Gavin Newsom and and former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams.

“My friends, this is a different governor’s campaign than we have ever seen before in our state because we are not up against a local-yokel Mississippi Democrat, we are up against a national liberal machine,” Reeves said at a May campaign event.

Presley, on the other hand, has criticized the governor for not doing enough to keep health care infrastructure in the state from deteriorating and attempted to portray the governor as a leader who shrugs off the difficulties that low income families face on a daily basis.

“He’s fiddling while our hospitals are burning to the ground, and he doesn’t care,” Presley has said repeatedly of Reeves on the campaign trail.

Reeves has the power of incumbency, but a national poll has consistently shown that he’s one of the country’s most unpopular governors.

Still, Presley has an uphill climb to convince voters in a deeply conservative state to abandoned their support for a Republican governor while igniting a Democratic base to return to the polls in November.

The incumbent governor also has vastly more campaign funds to spend on the race than his Democratic opponent. Reeves has around $7.4 million in cash for his main campaign account, and Presley has around $1.5 million in cash.

The two candidates will compete against independent Gwendolyn Gray on November 7 in the general election.

Other statewide races with contested primaries

Three candidates were vying in the Democratic primary for the right to challenge Republican incumbent Agriculture and Commerce Commissioner Andy Gipson. Early Tuesday night, Robert “Brad” Bradford led challengers Bethany Hill and Terry Rogers.

Republican Insurance Commissioner Mike Chaney, seeking his fifth term, defeated Mitch Young in the GOP primary.

And in the only other statewide primary on Tuesday, incumbent Republican Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann was leading state Sen. Chris McDaniel, though third candidate Tiffany Longino was pulling a modest percentage. To win a primary, a candidate will have to capture a 50% majority. If no candidate reaches 50%, the top two vote-getters will square off in an Aug. 27 runoff election.

All eight statewide officeholders — all Republicans — will face Democratic challengers in November.

Tuesday’s primaries also included elections for districtwide offices, such as Public Service commissioners, legislators, and district attorneys and for numerous county posts.

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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.

Taylor, a native of Grenada, covers state government and statewide elections. He is a graduate of the University of Mississippi and Holmes Community College. Before joining Mississippi Today, Taylor reported on state and local government for the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, where he received an award for his coverage of the federal government’s lawsuit against the state’s mental health system.