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

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.

OXFORD — The buzz of the annual “Good Ole Boys and Gals” political event on Thursday wasn’t the stump speeches from high-profile politicians ahead of the Nov. 7 statewide election. It wasn’t the big season Ole Miss football is having, and it wasn’t even the sweet-smelling BBQ chicken.

It was Gov. Tate Reeves’ poll numbers and the growing likelihood of a Nov. 28 gubernatorial runoff between Reeves and his Democratic challenger Brandon Presley.

One consultant at the event who is not affiliated with the Reeves campaign said they had reviewed a recent poll that showed the incumbent governor several points under 50%. A significant portion of voters, the source said, remained undecided or said they will cast votes for Gwendolyn Gray, an independent candidate.

“There have been several polls in the last 10 days that almost guarantee he’ll be in a runoff election,” the consultant, who asked to remain anonymous in order to speak frankly, said. “I would think the Democrats are smelling blood in the water.” 

Gray has publicly announced that she is no longer seeking the office and supporting Presley. Her announcement, however, came too late because state officials had already printed ballots, so her presence on the ballot created a runoff probability. 

If no candidate on the general election ballot receives more than 50% of the vote, the top two vote-getters will participate in a runoff election on Nov. 28, just five days after Thanksgiving.

Another consultant at the event said they had also reviewed recent polling numbers and doubted if Reeves could garner an outright majority on the first ballot, though they declined to share the specific numbers.

“I’ve crunched the numbers, and anyway you slice it, I’d be preparing for a runoff if I was them,” they said of the Reeves campaign. 

A third consultant speculated that while the governor hasn’t hit the 50% mark in some public polls, they don’t believe it will actually translate into a runoff scenario on Election Day. They believe undecided voters will get Reeves over 50%.

With insiders digesting poll numbers, baked beans and coleslaw at the event on Thursday, it was notable that so many attendees were openly speculating about the fact an incumbent Republican governor in a reliably red state may not win on the first ballot.

Reeves, in his speech to the event’s attendees, did not directly mention the runoff possibility, but he appeared to hint at the trouble he’s had reaching 50%. In his stump speech — well, technically a “bench speech” as the candidates at the event stand on an old, wooden bench — he said the only way he could win the general election is “if conservatives show up to the polls.” 

“I’m proud of the fact that we’re winning in every poll out there, even in the ones where they fake the outcome,” Reeves said. “But none of those polls matter. The only poll that matters is the one that’s taken on Election Day.”

One person who was noticeably absent was Presley, who currently represents Oxford as north Mississippi’s public service commissioner and has attended the event in previous years. John Morgan, one of the event’s organizers and an Oxford alderman, told attendees that Presley’s campaign initially indicated they would come and participate, but he did not show. 

Reeves seized on Presley’s absence at the festival, located in the Democrat’s home turf of north Mississippi and roughly an hour away from his hometown of Nettleton. 

“I’m going to be honest with you: I’m not at all surprised that my opponent didn’t have the guts to show up in north Mississippi tonight,” Reeves said. “He’s probably in California or New York meeting with billionaires who are funding his campaign.” 

Presley, in a statement to Mississippi Today, did not address his absence but criticized  Reeves’ rhetoric.

“Tate Reeves talks real tough and acts real wimpy,” Presley said. “I look forward to cleaning his clock across my home region of North Mississippi on Election Day where I’ve been elected four times.” 

Partisan brinkmanship may have been on display between the two candidates for governor, but there were unifying moments on Thursday to mark the death of Johnny Morgan, a former state lawmaker who first organized “Good Ole Boys and Gals”  in the mid-1980s. 

Morgan, a notable entrepreneur who was a cousin to the Oxford alderman, died in a plane crash in June and was widely viewed as a political powerbroker. House Speaker Philip Gunn, Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker and Reeves all paid tribute to Johnny Morgan in their speeches.

Headlines From The Trail

How a Tate Reeves victory would place him in Mississippi history books

Medicaid’s managed care contracts at a standstill after two companies cry foul

Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann calls for free community college tuition

Gubernatorial candidates throw punches from the podium at annual Hobnob forum

Republican operatives sound every alarm on current trajectory of 2023 governor’s race

What We’re Watching

1) A lecture series continues today at Galloway United Methodist Church in downtown Jackson. Galloway, the home church of Gov. Tate Reeves, is hosting faith leaders who will advocate for Medicaid expansion, among other things. Mississippi Today’s Bobby Harrison wrote last month about the series. Here’s how Reeves’ pastor Rev. Cary Stockett framed it: “We want it understood that this is a kingdom of God issue, grossly ignored right in the middle of the Bible Belt. We want the people who quote John 3:16 to understand that it matters to Jesus that there are people (our Mississippi neighbors) without real access to good healthcare … and so it should matter to us, too.”

2) Presley has a busy weekend ahead. On Saturday, he’ll campaign in Ridgeland, Vicksburg, Yazoo City and Pike County. On Sunday, he’ll campaign in Pascagoula, Gulfport and DeSoto County. That’s a lot of ground to cover. We haven’t seen Reeves’ schedule, but it’ll almost certainly be as crowded.

3) Are candidates spending any time in debate prep? The one and only debate of the cycle will be held Wednesday, Nov. 1. It is sure to be a contentious, bitter affair. If you’re in the Jackson metro area, come to Hal & Mal’s for a Mississippi Today watch party. We’ll stream the debate live at 7 p.m. on the big screen, and we’ll host some live analysis as soon as it ends.

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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.