Democratic gubernatorial candidate Brandon Presley speaks about Gov. Tate Reeves' involvement in the state's welfare scandal during a press conference in front of the Governor's Mansion in Jackson on Monday, Aug. 28, 2023. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

Ninety percent of likely Mississippi voters said they are concerned about the Mississippi welfare scandal and government corruption in general, according to a new Mississippi Today/Siena College poll.

Of numerous issues polled, it’s nearly top of mind for voters, trailing only the state’s hospital crisis.

But despite Democratic challenger Brandon Presley’s efforts to lay the scandal and corruption at incumbent Republican Gov. Tate Reeves’ feet, it doesn’t appear to be providing him much separation. Reeves leads Presley in head-to-head polling by 11 points.

But when asked which of the two candidates they believe will do a better job of addressing corruption and the welfare malfeasance, the split is narrow: 45% choosing Presley to 43% Reeves.

Editor’s note: Poll methodology and crosstabs can be found at the bottom of this story. Click here to read more about our partnership with Siena College Research Institute.

At least $77 million in federal money meant to help the poorest of the poor was stolen, misspent or directed to wealthy, politically-connected people between at least 2017 and 2020. One of the large expenditures was for a volleyball stadium at the University of Southern Mississippi, a project championed by Reeves’ friend and supporter former NFL quarterback Brett Favre.

Eight people have been criminally charged, seven have pleaded guilty and 47, including Favre, are being sued by the state to recover money. State and federal probes continue.

Voters have been bombarded by Presley’s claims of Reeves’ involvement in the scandal and Reeves’ counterclaims.

READ MORE: What exactly is Gov. Tate Reeves’ involvement in the welfare scandal?

For weeks, Presley has aired a TV advertisement alleging: “Under Tate Reeves, millions were steered from education and job programs to help his rich friends.”

Reeves quickly responded with his own ad that counters Presley’s claim.

“Tate Reeves had nothing to do with the scandal,” the Reeves ad narrator says. “… It all happened before he was governor.”

But past reporting reveals several ways the scandal has touched Reeves.

Mississippi Today reported this week that Gov. Reeves’ brother coordinated with state Auditor Shad White on damage control for former NFL star Brett Favre after an audit first revealed in 2020 that the athlete had received more than $1 million in welfare funds, according to text messages the governor’s political campaign released Thursday.

READ MORE: Gov. Tate Reeves’ brother used backchannel to state auditor to help clean up Brett Favre welfare mess

And records obtained by Mississippi Today indicate that then-Lt. Gov. Reeves in 2019 met with the head of the state welfare agency — who has pleaded guilty to charges in the scandal — about Reeves’ friend and fitness trainer Paul Lacoste.

Lacoste at the time had secured a contract to receive $1.4 million in welfare funds for a fitness program. But most of the money had not come through. Communications records indicate that changed after Reeves met with the welfare chief. The welfare director texted his deputy at the time and asked him to find a way to send a large sum of welfare money to a nonprofit without triggering a red flag in an audit so the nonprofit could fund Lacoste’s fitness camp. The welfare director in the text referred to the program as “the Lt. Gov.’s fitness issue.”

Reeves, who took office as governor in 2020, has also faced questions about his firing of the attorney the state had initially hired to probe the welfare spending and sue to recover money. In July 2022, after the lawyer subpoenaed the University of Southern Mississippi Athletic Foundation for communications with former Gov. Phil Bryant, Bryant’s wife Deborah, and former NFL star Brett Favre over $5 million in welfare dollars spent on a volleyball stadium, Reeves’ administration abruptly fired the attorney.

Pigott said his firing was a politically motivated response to him looking into the roles of former Republican governor Bryant, the USM Athletic Foundation and other powerful and connected people or entities Reeves and others didn’t want him looking at. 

Reeves has called Presley’s attempts to tie him to the welfare scandal “mental gymnastics” and said, “The bad actors in this case have been sued by the Reeves administration.”

Only 9% of voters polled between August 20-28 said they were not concerned about the scandal and government corruption, with 1% not knowing or refusing. The poll surveyed 650 likely Mississippi voters and has a margin of error of 4%.

The Mississippi Today/Siena College Research Institute poll of 650 registered voters was conducted August 20-28, 2023, and has an overall margin of error of +/- 4.0 percentage points. Siena has an ‘A’ rating in FiveThirtyEight’s analysis of pollsters.

Click here for complete methodology and crosstabs relevant to this story.

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Geoff Pender serves as senior political reporter, working closely with Mississippi Today leadership on editorial strategy and investigations. Pender brings 30 years of political and government reporting experience to Mississippi Today. He was political and investigative editor at the Clarion Ledger, where he also penned a popular political column. He previously served as an investigative reporter and political editor at the Sun Herald, where he was a member of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team for Hurricane Katrina coverage. Originally from Florence, Mississippi, Pender is a journalism graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi and has received numerous awards throughout his career for reporting, columns and freedom of information efforts.