Gov. Tate Reeves speaks during Mississippi Economic Council's 2023 Hobnob at the Mississippi Coliseum in Jackson, Miss., Thursday, Oct. 26, 2023. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today

Incumbent Republican Gov. Tate Reeves told business leaders Thursday that Mississippi is thriving, but that would change if voters don’t reelect him in two weeks as out-of-state, radical liberals would take over.

“Over 80% of my opponent’s money is coming from out-of-state,” Reeves told about 1,500 business leaders at the state chamber of commerce’s annual Hobnob event in Jackson. “… What do they think they are buying? It’s not just to change governors. They want to change Mississippi. If you are a radical liberal, a thriving Mississippi doesn’t work for you … Are we going to hand the state over to the Biden administration and let their guy take the keys?”

Democratic challenger Brandon Presley, a longtime state public service commissioner, former Nettleton mayor and cousin of Elvis, said Reeves is “petty and vindictive.” He said Reeves traffics in “cheap, partisan politics and corruption,” doesn’t work well with others and ignores major challenges the state faces.

“Partisan politics has got us in a ditch in Mississippi,” Presley said. “I don’t want to be governor for one political party — I want to be governor for everybody … When Brandon Presley is elected governor, you won’t have to write a campaign check to come see your governor … I’ll get along better with the Republican House and Senate than Tate Reeves does, because I respect them.”

Most candidates for statewide office spoke Thursday at the Mississippi Economic Council’s Hobnob, highlighted by the gubernatorial candidates. It’s likely the last major forum where the two will speak before their single televised debate on Nov. 1, with the general election Nov. 7. The debate promises to be a lively one, as the two hurled barbs at each other during and after their Hobnob speeches.

“My opponent doesn’t have any original thoughts,” Reeves said. “My opponent takes his talking points directly from the Democratic National Committee, and they poll test it and say, hey, do you think this will work in Mississippi? But what he’s often done, particularly on the transgender issue, is that he told people what he really believed … and started getting attacked not only by hard conservatives and strong conservatives and Republicans, he was getting attacked by independents and even left-leaning Democrats that his position on transgender surgeries for minors was the wrong position. He changed his position. It’s all poll tested by the Democratic National Committee.”

Reeves has made transgender issues a major focus of his campaign. In ads and campaign stumping, both Reeves and Presley have accused each other of lying on the issue.

READ MORE: Ad wars: Tate Reeves continues focus on trans issues, Brandon Presley says governor is lying

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Brandon Presley speaks during Mississippi Economic Council’s 2023 Hobnob at the Mississippi Coliseum in Jackson, Miss., Thursday, Oct. 26, 2023. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today

Unlike Reeves’ rosy picture of the state of the state Thursday, Presley said, “We’ve got serious problems in Mississippi, problems that require the attention of a governor.” He said the state faces a health care crisis, with dozens of hospitals facing closure, and a corruption crisis — the welfare scandal in which tens of millions of dollars meant to help the poor in Mississippi were stolen or squandered.

“Tate doesn’t want to talk about it,” Presley said. “Thirty-four of our hospitals are at risk of closure … We have a solution staring us in the face, but for the pettiness of Tate Reeves. We have given our money away to 40 other states long enough. We will expand Medicaid as one of the first things I do. It’s not a partisan political issue … It’s called common sense.”

As for the welfare scandal, Presley told the crowd, “You as business owners ought to be as mad as anyone else. This was money that could have been used for workforce training programs, for child care for workers … But instead, his personal trainer, the guy that teaches Tate Reeves how to do jumping jacks, got $1.3 million in taxpayer dollars.”

READ MORE: Welfare scandal defendant sues Gov. Tate Reeves, claims he’s protecting himself and political allies

Reeves, who served two terms as treasurer and two terms as lieutenant governor before being elected governor in 2020, told the business leaders Thursday the state has done better than ever under his watch.

“Our population is growing,” Reeves said. “Jobs and businesses are moving in to every region … In the old days, there were a lot of people out looking for jobs. But as people in this room can attest, now we have jobs looking for people.”

He said the state has also seen great gains in education, made record investment in infrastructure and enacted large tax cuts.

“It’s a clear indication that conservative policies work,” Reeves said. He reiterated his opposition to Medicaid expansion, referring to it as “welfare” and said his recently announced plan to tax hospitals more to draw down more federal Medicaid reimbursements is a better plan.

Reeves urged the crowd to get out Nov. 7 to make their choice for governor and said, “The billionaires in California and New York and Washington, D.C., have made their choice.”

Presley said the governor’s race is “tight as a tick … neck and neck,” according to recent polls, and he believes his campaign “has the wind at our back.”

“People in Mississippi are ready to turn the page on Tate Reeves and ready to turn the page on the corruption and ready to have a breath of fresh air in state government,” Presley said. “We are going to be working as hard over the next 12 days as we have the last 10 months. I’m going to be awake while Tate Reeves is sleeping, and I’m going to be where he is not.”

READ MORE: New governor’s race poll shows Reeves leading Presley by just one point

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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.