Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves speaks with reporters following the televised gubernatorial debate with the Democratic nominee Brandon Presley, Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2023, in Jackson, Miss. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Mississippi voters who tuned in Wednesday night were treated to the most heated gubernatorial debate in recent history, as Republican Tate Reeves and Democrat Brandon Presley accused each other of lying, corruption, lying, offering up bad policies and lying.

The two frequently talked over each other and the moderators — and loudly when their mics were shut off. Recriminations flew.

“When he qualified to run for governor he couldn’t make it an entire hour without lying to the people of Mississippi,” incumbent Reeves said early in the hour-long scrum. “And on this debate stage he couldn’t make it one full minute without lying to the people of Mississippi.”

Presley quipped: “I told somebody recently that asked me about negative ads, ‘If he’d quit lying on me, I’d quit telling the truth on him.'”

Post-debate, each camp and their party leaders claimed victory. Both candidates landed blows, dodged and parried. Neither appeared to offer any major new policy, platform planks or accusation against the other likely to sway undecided voters. Perhaps not surprising given their only debate happened just six days out from Tuesday’s election, the candidates mostly used talking points from their stump speeches and recent barrage of millions of dollars worth of ads attacking each other.

WAPT moderators Megan West and Troy Johnson, at times growing a little flustered, tried to keep the sparring politicians on topic with questions mostly sent in by the public. These included a few video-recorded questions from Mississippians.

WATCH: Full debate between Gov. Tate Reeves and Brandon Presley

Topics covered in the debate included:

Mississippi’s health care and hospitals crisis, and Medicaid expansion as a possible solution

Reeves said that Medicaid expansion is “probably the topic that my team and I have worked on more than any other.” This might surprise some advocates, as Reeves has long been a major opponent of Mississippi accepting federal money to expand Medicaid coverage to working poor people as 40 other states have. And he’s appeared to eschew it out-of-hand with little discussion.

“At the end of the day, it does not make sense for the people of Mississippi,” Reeves said. “If you add 300,000 people, 100,000 would currently be on private insurance, so putting them on the government rolls doesn’t make any sense.”

Reeves said a plan he recently proposed to tax hospitals more and enable them to draw down more federal Medicaid reimbursement dollars is a better solution for hospitals. He has also repeatedly said he’ll focus on creating better jobs that offer insurance.

READ MORE: Gov. Reeves announces 11th hour plan for hospital crisis. Opponents pan it as ‘too little, too Tate’

Presley has made Medicaid expansion a focus of his campaign. He said Mississippi receiving the $1 billion a year in federal dollars would help the large number of uninsured working Mississippians, help save struggling hospitals and create an estimated 16,000 new jobs.

“It’s past time to do it,” Presley said. “… The truth of the matter is, Tate, there’s a majority in the House and Senate of Democrats and Republicans right now that want to expand Medicaid, and you’re standing in the way of 230,000 working people that have jobs that you’re too good to do yourself that would benefit if we expanded Medicaid … A majority of Republicans support expanding Medicaid. A majority of Mississippians support it … We have 34 hospitals on the brink of closure, and Tate Reeves didn’t open his mouth in this campaign about trying to help those hospitals until he got in a tight race and you saw the polls tightening, and then he came up with a scheme that’s going to actually tax our hospitals.”

Presley has in the past vowed to expand Medicaid, day one, if elected. Reeves said, “He doesn’t have the authority to do anything on the first day in office. But like everything else he proposes, he simply is lying to the people of Mississippi.”

“There are unintended consequences of expanding Medicaid to 300,000 Mississippians,” Reeves said. “The unintended consequence is moving individuals off of private insurance. And, by the way, that’s bad for rural hospitals as well because the fact is when you move them from private insurance, the reimbursement rates for those 100,000 people are actually lower when they go on Medicaid.” Reeves said Louisiana and Arkansas have both expanded Medicaid, and they also have rural hospitals facing closure.

Presley said that as governor, he could ask federal Medicaid for a waiver that would allow him to start Medicaid expansion. “I don’t know if the governor knows the authority of his job or not … Tate Reeves’ own state economist says that this program will pay for itself. Well, if he doesn’t believe his own state economist, he ought to fire him.”

READ MORE: Brandon Presley again vows to expand Medicaid as Gov. Tate Reeves reiterates opposition

Brandon Presley, the Democratic nominee for Mississippi governor, speaks with reporters following the televised gubernatorial debate with Republican Gov. Tate Reeves, Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2023, in Jackson, Miss. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Corruption, particularly Mississippi’s massive welfare scandal, attack ads and the influence of campaign donors

Presley pulled out the only prop of the night — paper copies of text messages — and said Reeves “has been ensnarled in the largest public corruption scandal in Mississippi history.”

“We found out (Reeves’) brother, we’ve got text messages for his brother,” Presley said as he pulled papers from his suit coat. “He was text messaging with Brett Favre about how to be a PR agent.

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

“Seventy-seven million dollars was diverted for things like Brett Favre on a volleyball court, for Tate Reeves’ personal trainer, $1.3 million dollars,” Presley said. “And what did Tate do? He fired the independent investigator. He delayed depositions 13 times indefinitely. He is at the center of the state’s largest public corruption scandal. And so what do crooked politicians do when they’ve been caught in a scandal like this? They try to throw some sort of accusations at somebody else.”

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

Reeves denied any involvement in the welfare scandal and, as he has done in campaign ads, accused Presley — who’s serving as a state Public Service commissioner — of accepting illegal campaign contributions from solar companies.

READ MORE: Solar company’s donations to Brandon Presley appear legal. But should he have accepted them?

“You would have to believe in time travel to believe I was involved in the TANF scandal,” Reeves said. “It all happened before I was governor … He’ll lie about my family, lie about me, lie about what he believes or doesn’t believe because he doesn’t have any of his own beliefs.”

“Three public service commissioners have gone to jail in the last 30 years for doing the same thing Brandon Presley did,” Reeves said. “… He’s taken money from his solar panel buddies. He’s approved their ability to produce energy. That’s illegal in Mississippi (for a PSC commissioner to take donations from a regulated utility). The law is clear and Brandon Presley knowingly broke the law.”

Presley said Reeves’ claim is “a bald-faced lie.”

“And I’ll tell you why he knows it’s a lie,” Presley said. “The minute that the company involved threatened his campaign with a lawsuit for defamation, guess what he did. He changed the ad … These solar companies are not public utilities, and Tate Reeves knows that.”

Presley has made ethics reform and fighting corruption a major plank in his platform, and early in his campaign presented a detailed plan for reforms. On Thursday he accused Reeves of being “the biggest cheerleader for corruption, with pom-poms on … and if you think Tate Reeves will take on corruption, I’ve got some beachfront property in Nettleton to sell you.”

Each candidate accused the other of being bought and paid for by big-money campaign donors. Reeves said Presley has sold out to the national Democratic Party. Presley said Reeves has been bought off by big donors who get large state contracts in exchange.

READ MORE: Gov. Tate Reeves’ top political donors received $1.4 billion in state contracts from his agencies

“Eighty percent of the money that he is spending in this campaign has come from California, New York, Massachusetts and Washington, D.C.,” Reeves said. “And if you’re keeping score at home, that’s over $10 million in far-left radicals funding his campaign.”

Presley said to Reeves onstage: “The truth is, you’re a bought-and-paid-for politician, and you know it, and the people of Mississippi know it … He is the poster child of this broken, corrupt system … There’s a report out just yesterday about Tate Reeves’ pay to play scheme … his contributors benefitted over a billion dollars in state contracts. One guy gave him $25,000, and then about 48 hours later he became a gaming commissioner.”

The candidates’ jabs at each other on alleged corruption got so heated and drawn out a moderator urged, “Gentlemen, we need to move on. We have to move on.”

Tax cuts: eliminating the state income tax or tax on groceries

Both candidates have vowed to cut taxes, but each has a different focus. Reeves vows to continue a push to eliminate the state income tax. Presley vows to eliminate the state’s sales tax on groceries. They were asked how they plan to get this done and to replace lost revenue. Neither directly answered those questions.

“I’ve been a tax cutter as governor,” Reeves said. “I was a tax cutter as lieutenant governor. In fact, in 2016 we passed the larges tax cut in Mississippi history. In 2021 we passed an even bigger tax cut. Combined, we’ve cut taxes over $1.2 billion for the people of this state. I do believe that eliminating the income tax is the best public policy for the state.”

Presley said: “Look, I want to cut the sales tax on groceries. We have the highest sales tax on food of any state in the United States. If you go out tonight and buy feed for a hog or feed for a cow, you pay zero sales tax. But if you want to feed your baby or you want to feed your family, you pay the highest sales tax in America.”

READ MORE: Tate Reeves, Brandon Presley pitch different tax cuts to voters. Who, exactly, would benefit?

Presley said Reeves has had 12 years to get income tax elimination done and that he “talks so tough but does so little.”

Reeves said: “If you earn income, if you make a living in this state, we’ve cut your taxes. You have more money in your pocket because of conservative leadership in the Legislature and the governor’s office. And if we turn Mississippi blue, we would never see another tax cut in the state of Mississippi.”

Public education, funding for schools and teacher pay

Reeves, as he has done many times on the campaign trail, touted public education achievements made over the last decade, teacher pay raises and increased spending for schools.

“The Mississippi miracle — that’s what the New York Times called it, and the New York Times is very rarely nice or generous to Mississippi,” Reeves said. “… We passed conservative reforms in 2013 and 2014 that laid the groundwork for the best educational achievement levels in the history of Mississippi.”

Reeves noted marked improvements in fourth-grade reading and math, and higher high school graduations rates, and “the largest teacher pay raise in state history … $6,100 more per year.”

Presley said he’s being supported by teacher groups including the Mississippi Association of Educators. He said he would push for full funding of the state’s adequate education formula, “that we have not fully funded education but two times in the entire existence of our school funding formula.”

“It’s evident who educators in this race support and know will really have their back,” Presley said. “… They looked at Tate Reeves’ record. They looked at my record and looked at my platform and they chose to endorse me over him … He brags about teacher pay raises. I think we’re measuring wrong on teacher pay … Instead of bragging about getting to the Southeastern average, we ought to bet teacher pay to the national average.”

Reeves said the educators supporting Presley are from teacher unions, with ties to national liberals “who led the effort to shut down our schools during COVID-19.”

READ MORE: Gov. Tate Reeves supported fully funding public education before he was against it

Presley provided an anecdote of a teacher he talked with last week in north Mississippi, who told him “she netted out about $23 a month” from the teacher pay raise Reeves touted. Some teachers have recently reported their take-home from raises ended up shrinking because of increased insurance and other costs.

Reeves responded to Presley: “There is no possible way that a teacher netted $23 a month on a $6,100 a year pay raise. Brandon Presley can’t do math. He lies really well, but he can’t do math.”

READ MORE: Lawmakers pass largest teacher pay raise in Mississippi history

The candidates accused each other of being out of step with rank-and-file Mississippians.

“He wants to talk about California and New York,” Presley said. “Let me tell you this, governor, how about you talk about Caledonia and New Hebron? You’re obsessed with California and New York. I ain’t been to California — I don’t even know what you’re talking about.”

Reeves said: “Can I just say something about Caledonia?”

Presley, who has visited all 82 counties in his campaign, said: “Have you been there?”

Reeves said: “Yes. I went to breakfast in Caledonia last Monday morning and I’m gonna tell you something, Brandon, you’re gonna get more votes in California than you get in Caledonia.”

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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.