Gov. Tate Reeves speaks to reporters at his Flowood watch party on Nov. 7, 2023. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today

Republican Gov. Tate Reeves was reelected Tuesday, defeating Democratic challenger Brandon Presley in a tight race that political experts around the country had closely eyed for weeks as a potential upset.

But Reeves held Presley off, winning 52% to 46%, according to results at 11:30 p.m.. Third-party candidate Gwendolyn Gray, an independent, garnered about 2%. The governor’s margin of victory is expected to shrink slightly as tens of thousands of votes were still uncounted in Hinds County, which experienced major election problems on Tuesday.

RESULTSMississippi’s general election 2023

Reeves, the 49-year-old who previously served two terms as lieutenant governor and two terms as state treasurer, will serve a second and final four-year term as governor beginning in January 2024. He will be the first person in Mississippi elected to both two terms as lieutenant governor and two terms as governor.

“This victory sure is sweet,” Reeves told cheering supporters at his watch party in Flowood. “You know, we all now know what it means in a state like Mississippi when you stand up to the national liberals and you stand up to Joe Biden. They threw everything they had at Mississippi — $13 million they threw at Mississippi. But you know what? Mississippi did not bend, Mississippi did not break, Mississippi is not for sale.”

In downtown Jackson, many of Presley’s supporters left his watch party before the race was officially called. But at 10:45 p.m. Presley announced to dozens of attendees that he’d conceded the race to Reeves.

“Tonight’s a setback, but we’re not going to lose hope because this campaign elevated issues that had to be talked about in Mississippi,” Presley said. “Medicaid will be expanded at some point and you will have played a role in that.

“This campaign’s been tough … but I think we’ve seen the best of Mississippi through it. It’s been worth it to elevate these important issues.”

Democratic gubernatorial challenger Brandon Presley, with wife Katelyn by his side, concedes the race for governor before his supporters at his watch party held at the Faulkner Hotel in Jackson, Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

For weeks, Republican political operatives publicly fretted over Reeves’ ability to enthuse the GOP voter base. In the closing days of the campaign, Republican elected officials swarmed the airwaves with pleas for turnout. And notably, less than a week from Tuesday, the Reeves campaign rolled out a video endorsement from former President Donald Trump that aired constantly on TV across the state.

In conservative pockets of the state on Election Day, Reeves matched or came close to matching the margins he earned four years ago against Democratic challenger Jim Hood. In Jones County, for instance, Reeves earned 66% of the vote against Presley. Four years ago, he earned 65% there.

And Presley did not make up enough of those Reeves margins with any other key demographic or locale. Presley hoped to perform better than Hood’s 2019 campaign in northeast Mississippi, but Reeves held his ground there from four years ago. 

Presley also hoped to inspire outstanding turnout from Black Mississippians. Black Mississippians did turn out in droves in some majority-minority counties, voting in higher numbers in 2023 than in 2019. But without more white voter support for Presley, his gains with Black voters were not enough to offset Reeves’ success.

Reeves, in particular, swamped Presley on the Gulf Coast — a region of the state that has long served as the governor’s political firewall. Presley did not, as he’d hoped, make gains in the three coastal counties relative to Hood four years ago.

Perhaps one of the happiest people at Reeves’ party on Tuesday night was former Gov. Haley Barbour, who was mingling among the crowd with a glass of ice-cold bourbon in his hand and a bright smile on his face.

The former two-term governor told Mississippi Today that Reeves won reelection because he’s “done a good job” leading the state through natural disasters and the COVID-19 virus while promoting his office’s work on economic development.

“I sometimes say that his wife Elee has got more of a politician’s personality than he does,” Barbour said. “But he’s got a record that is mighty good to run on.”

While Reeves avoided the upset, he underperformed relative to his seven fellow statewide Republican incumbents. All seven other GOP statewide incumbents won with at least 59% of the vote against their Democratic challengers.

And Presley, when all the votes are counted, will have gotten closer than any Democratic gubernatorial nominee since 1999 to defeating a Republican nominee.

Reeves, for his part, spent much of his victory speech on Tuesday night decrying national liberals, his in-state detractors and the press. He ended his speech with a more hopeful look toward the future.

“I know that over these 20 years, I’ve made mistakes, but I’ve never stopped trying to earn your trust,” Reeves said. “I promise you going forward I’ll work hard. I commit that I’ll stand firm, and I’ll do everything in my power to rally our fellow Mississippians … I want you all to know I value your trust. I’m humbled by your support. And I’m fired up for the next four years.”

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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.

Julia, a Louisiana native, covers K-12 education. She previously served as an investigative intern with Mississippi Today helping cover the welfare scandal. She is a 2021 graduate of the University of Mississippi, where she studied journalism and public policy and was a member of the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College. She has also been published in The New York Times and the Clarion-Ledger.