Welcome to The Homestretch, a daily blog featuring the most comprehensive coverage of the 2023 Mississippi governor’s race. This page, curated by the Mississippi Today politics team, will feature the biggest storylines of the 2023 governor’s race at 7 a.m. every day between now and the Nov. 7 election.
Longtime Republican politico Henry Barbour, about a month ago in a radio interview, might as well have lit a fuse tied to the backsides of every political operative in Mississippi.
“The way we end up with a liberal governor is that Republicans assume we win,” Barbour told radio host Paul Gallo on Sept. 14. “I’m talking to you on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi … We’ve got to run the score up down there because there are going to be other parts of the state, like the Delta, where Brandon Presley is gonna run the score up.”
Barbour, the nephew of a founding father of the modern Republican Party and a well-connected lobbyist who certainly knows a thing or two about what it takes to win a governor’s race, continued.
“So we need big turnout, we need people to get fired up, to lean on their neighbors and friends. The best way to get someone to vote is not a TV ad or a radio ad, heaven forbid. It’s peer to peer, it’s talking to somebody they know like their neighbor and encouraging them that hey, we’ve got to run because this is important. It’s about the future of our state and our children.”
The speculation Barbour’s comment stirred in mid-September among the Jackson political class was loud and sustained, but the consensus among them: Reeves, facing at least a decent challenge from Democrat Brandon Presley, might not have this governor’s race wrapped in a bow like his allies had been projecting for months.
If Reeves struggles on Nov. 7, it’ll almost certainly be because, in large part, Republican voters weren’t excited about heading to the polls. That shouldn’t necessarily read as support for Presley or for his positions, but the Democrat sure could benefit from lackluster turnout in GOP strongholds — and especially in the three Gulf Coast counties.
Another longtime GOP operative put it this way this week: “I can’t remember a statewide election cycle when a Republican had a tough challenge and so few Republican voters seemed to care.”
So why the dull feelings for Republican voters this go-round? Well, it’s not just this go-round for Reeves. To put it bluntly, it might just be that voters don’t like him all that much.
For three-plus years, Reeves has polled as one of the most unpopular governors in the nation. He got just 51.9% of the vote in 2019 in ruby red Mississippi against Democratic challenger Jim Hood. For reference, Republican President Donald Trump earned 57.6% in Mississippi the very next year. For even further reference, former Republican Gov. Phil Bryant earned 61% of the vote against Democrat Johnny Dupree in 2011 and 66% against Democrat Robert Gray in 2015.
As Mississippi Today’s Geoff Pender and Taylor Vance have reported, Reeves has been sharply criticized in his first term by both the political left and the political right. Here’s what two of Mississippi’s most prominent far right conservatives have said about Reeves’ 2023 candidacy in recent days:
- Chris McDaniel, the state senator who unsuccessfully ran three times for statewide or federal office: “There is an overall unease about everything. There’s some dissatisfaction out there, but not necessarily with (Reeves) but just the political climate … There is a chance that could equate to lower turnout (of conservative voters). Low turnout would be trouble for everyone. Our models are usually based on having good turnout.”
- Robert Foster, who unsuccessfully ran against Reeves in 2019: “While most conservative Christians I know have forgiven (Reeves) for his emotional rather than rational actions during the COVID hysteria, we haven’t forgotten how he mishandled it. He issued many unconstitutional mandates and gave tiny tyrants all over the state unbridled power, and they abused it. They used it to hurt small businesses. They used it to hurt our elderly in nursing homes and our helpless children in schools and daycares. They even used it to close churches for a short time. I for one think a public apology is not only due but possibly necessary for many to consider voting for him to be our governor again and not skipping the race altogether on the ballot in November.”
Presley would argue that low potential GOP turnout on Election Day is not just about Tate’s general likability on the right. The Democratic nominee has spent millions pointing out Reeves’ ties to the very well-known welfare scandal, Reeves’ inaction on the very well-known hospital crisis, and Reeves’ refusal to expand Medicaid to provide at least 200,000 working poor Mississippians with health care. All three of those issues have polled off the charts in Presley’s favor this year.
Meanwhile, Presley is getting what appears to be unprecedented support from Black Democrats across the state. Much will be written about this in the coming days, but Black voters are the base of the Mississippi Democratic Party, period.
If the recent coordinated work of Black political leaders, pastors and community activists produces the results they’re hoping, and Republicans stay home for whatever reason, the evening of Nov. 7 might be a long one for Reeves.
Headlines From The Trail
What We’re Watching
1) Regarding that potential Gulf Coast problem: Reeves on Thursday announced funding for 15 new projects for the Gulf Coast. Reeves’ administration manages a huge pot of federal settlement funds the state received after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill gutted the Gulf Coast. And in his first term as governor, he has doled out hundreds of millions of dollars for specific Coast projects. It should be noted that any governor would have the power to do this, and Coast-based projects have to receive the funding. But Reeves has masterfully played these “look what I’m doing for the Coast” cards many, many times over the past few years, and it undoubtedly helps him with everyday Coast voters.
2) What’s the extent of runoff preparations being made by the campaigns? Click this link to read about the potential runoff and how it’s being discussed currently, but having to prepare for a runoff while in the homestretch could certainly be a huge distraction for already stretched-thin campaign teams.
3) What about debate prep? Reeves may take the strategy of setting low expectations. In his Neshoba County Fair speech in late July, he actually directly took a self-deprecating approach about his less-than-stellar public speaking skills. Presley, on the other hand, is known in political circles as an effective communicator. How much might debate prep time ahead of the Nov. 1 throw-down on live TV keep the candidates off the trail?