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.
One of the best-selling authors in the world put it succinctly on Wednesday night: Brandon Presley’s 2023 bid for governor feels different than the many Democratic Party losses of recent years.
“Every four years for a long time, Renee and I have been back here in Jackson raising money trying to get the Governor’s Mansion back,” John Grisham told more than 100 people gathered for a Presley fundraiser he hosted at Iron Horse Grill in downtown Jackson. “And every four years, we lose. But this is different. It is so different this year. There’s a great candidate, a great stump speech, a great story, a great family, and great ideas.”
Grisham has built a legendary career of thrilling readers with fiction set in Mississippi — stories rooted in backroom politics, moral justice and unexpected twists. But he sure wasn’t spinning a tale Wednesday night.
Anyone following Presley’s bid to unseat incumbent Republican Gov. Tate Reeves the past few weeks knows the author is right about the difference this go-round. Presley this year has raised $5 million more than Reeves, one of the state’s best political fundraisers in history. Polling from Democrats and Republicans suggests Reeves is struggling to hit the 50% mark and has dismal favorability ratings, and Presley is within striking distance.
Republican Party leaders and surrogates have launched into an all-out blitz of get-out-the-vote efforts, expressing outward concern that Reeves is not drawing necessary enthusiasm from Republican Party voters.
“The way we end up with a liberal governor is that Republicans assume we win,” Republican consultant Henry Barbour told radio host Paul Gallo in September. “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.”
Democratic Party forces, likewise, have activated in profound ways. Presley’s campaign has picked up an impressive level of grassroots support, and the millions of dollars pumped in from the Democratic Governors Association sure won’t hurt his ground game.
But even the Mississippi Democratic Party, for several years close to dormant, has sprung into action the past few months. Democrats have attracted high-profile politicians to help campaign from DeSoto County to Harrison County, working to turn out voters for Presley and others progressives down ticket. Congressman Bennie Thompson and other prominent elected Dems are working hard to turn out Black voters, who make up the base of the state Democratic Party and could easily vault Presley to victory.
And anyone who watched the first and only debate between Presley and Reeves on Wednesday night saw the difference firsthand. The candidates stood face-to-face in a cold television studio, but they may as well have been in a boxing ring. They didn’t literally swing at each other, but they got mighty close a few times.
Both took some big blows from one another, but Presley’s jabs of the governor were sharp, deliberate and immediate (it took him four seconds of speaking before lobbing his first criticism at Reeves). Presley landed more punches overall than Reeves, and the Democrat was clearly the better prepared. He weaved in bits of humanity and forward-looking policy ideas with the attacks.
Reeves froze up and tripped over words several times, repeated himself many times, and talked little about future ideas, instead choosing to dwell on many of the same successes he’s highlighted for several years.
Both campaigns afterward — as they always do — claimed victory, but Presley’s seemed most justified.
“Tonight, we showed the contrast in what the last four years have looked like and what the next four years will look like,” Presley told his supporters after arriving post-debate to the Grisham-hosted fundraiser. “(Reeves) came out there tonight needing a win, and he lost. He needed it and he didn’t get it.”
But despite the momentum, Presley still has a mountain to climb. He’s facing a Republican Party machine that hasn’t lost since 1999, a major name ID problem, attack ads painting him as an out-of-touch liberal beholden to out-of-state liberal interests, and a GOP electorate that adores former President Donald Trump, who endorsed Reeves this week.
Still, he’s trying to leverage his campaign’s recent wins and call his supporters to action.
“We’ve got five days left in this campaign,” Presley said to the room Wednesday night. “Bear Bryant won a lot of football games, and he was interviewed one time and asked, “Coach, how do you keep winning?’ He said, ‘We do the little things right, and we give it a little something extra.’ What I’m asking you to do between tonight and Tuesday night at 7 o’clock is to do the little things, and a little something extra…
“More importantly than anything else, please contact your neighbors and family. This race is tied … If everybody in this room talks to two people in the next five days, that’s 10 votes. This room could be the margin of victory Tuesday night. … We are going to win this election … We’re going to turn that Governor’s Mansion back over to the people.”
Headlines From The Trail
What We’re Watching
1) Where will Reeves and Presley spend the final five days of the campaign? The answer to this question may provide hints about what they’re worried about and what vulnerabilities might exist. Both candidates have been tearing up the campaign trail over the past few weeks, and this weekend is their last chance to meet voters where they are.
2) How will the Trump endorsement of Reeves play? We’ve reported several times that Republican consultants are worried about Republican voter enthusiasm and turnout. Might Trump, whose favorability numbers do appear lower in Mississippi than they were four years ago when he visited Mississippi to campaign for Reeves, be the solution to that concern?
3) If you missed the debate, Mississippi Today’s Geoff Pender has an excellent and pretty detailed summary. A big lingering question that we may never know the answer to: Did undecideds move because of what they saw and heard in the debate? Recent polls have shown between 7-10% are still undecided. That’s the difference in a close race.