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

A pattern has developed for statewide Democratic candidates in Mississippi: They hit a ceiling of about 47% of the vote, no matter how hard they campaign or how much money they spend.

And populous DeSoto County and the Gulf Coast appear impenetrable for a Democrat. Even Northeast Mississippi, once a “yellow dog” stronghold, is becoming that way.

While election results still are trickling in, it appears that in Tuesday’s election for governor Democrat Brandon Presley performed at about the same level as Jim Hood did in 2019, despite raising and spending about at least $5 million more on his campaign.

RESULTSMississippi’s general election 2023

Hood, a four-term state attorney general from northeast Mississippi, lost to Gov. Tate Reeves in 2019. And Presley, a four-term public service commissioner from northeast Mississippi, lost to Reeves on Tuesday. And that aforementioned pattern is not confined to just the governor’s elections. In 2020, Democrat Mike Espy lost to Republican U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith in an outcome that was eerily similar.

Democrats in those races bumped up against the 47% mark against their Republican foes, making the election close enough to be interesting. But close losses in elections do not reap many rewards.

The trend endured by Democrats in recent elections actually began in the watershed 2003 gubernatorial election, when many observers say that Haley Barbour, a Washington lobbyist and political operative from Yazoo City, brought modern campaigning to Mississippi and upended incumbent Democratic Gov. Ronnie Musgrove.

In that election, Musgrove lost 53% to 46% (there was an independent siphoning a few votes) in what is still the highest general election turnout in a state election in Mississippi history.

While Democratic presidential candidates have garnered more votes, it appears that in an election for a statewide office, Hood in 2019 is still the top vote-getter for a Democrat. He garnered 414,368 votes in 2019. In an incomplete and unofficial tally Wednesday morning, Presley was at 370,000, although thousands more votes are likely to be added over the next few days.

Republican Phil Bryant garnered the most votes for governor in the modern era with 544,851 votes against Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny DuPree in 2011.

In three races after the 2003 contest, Democrats fielded candidates with limited funding and not much statewide recognition. This dry spell culminated with Robert Gray, a truck driver who had never run a campaign and was not even in state to vote for himself in his victorious Democrat primary, being the nominee in 2015.

But in 2019, Hood, who had won four statewide campaigns for attorney general, gave Democrats hope. And Democrats went into this Tuesday’s election with optimism, hoping the charismatic and surprisingly well-funded Presley could build on Hood’s performance from 2019. After all, Presley, thanks in large part to the Democratic Governors Association, was able to outmatch Reeves’ fundraising prowess — a rare feat for a Democrat in Mississippi. And in 2019, Hood did win some majority white counties, which also provided hope for Democrats.

Hood, for instance, was the first Democrat since 1987 to win Madison County, a Jackson suburb. Hood also won Lafayette and Oktibbeha — two predominantly white counties, but homes of major universities that include a higher percentage of college-educated residents who are more likely to vote Democratic. On Tuesday, Presley lost Lafayette and Madison, albeit by narrow margins. He kept Oktibbeha in the Democratic column. He also picked up Lowndes, a county with a plurality white population that Hood did not win in 2019.

But in the end, the differences in the losses for Hood and Presley — just as the loss by Musgrove way back in 2003 — were differences without much distinction.

Some additional takeaways from Tuesday’s gubernatorial election:

  • Hinds County is fast becoming statewide Democrats’ last and only populous stronghold. Reeves took back Madison County on Tuesday after Hood won it in 2019. Take away Hinds County’s large Democratic vote, and a statewide Democrat stands no chance with today’s Mississippi electoral maps.
  • It would appear record levels of spending by both Reeves and Presley resulted in only mediocre voter turnout. Spending totals by the campaigns will likely top $20 million, and outside interests poured in millions more. Much of this went to mudslinging ads. This did not appear to motivate voter turnout greatly on either side.
  • The Trump effect is still there, but to what extent? Democratic and Republican polling leading up to the election showed the Reeves-Presley race much tighter than it played out, and Republicans were extremely worried about anemic turnout. But Reeves got a late endorsement by former President Donald Trump. Trump remains popular in Mississippi, and it’s certain this helped Reeves, but the extent will likely never be known.
  • A Democratic candidate could use help from a third-party one. Given that 46%-47% ceiling, pushing to a runoff might offer a Democrat a better chance. Many politicos believed Presley’s best chance at survival Tuesday night was for little-known independent Gwendolyn Gray (who had dropped out but was still on the ballot) to siphon votes from Reeves and force a runoff between the Republican and Democrat. But that math required Gray to pull around 3% of the vote, and take it mostly from Reeves. Instead, Gray earned 1.4%, and appeared to take quite a few votes from Presley as well — perhaps in protest to negative campaigning.
  • The Coast remains ruby red. Presley campaigned hard on the Coast, attempting to turn out Black voters particularly in Harrison and Jackson counties and a fairly sizable union shipyard vote. But Reeves still ran the tables there, picking up a nearly 19,000 vote margin, only slightly smaller than his Coast take in 2019.

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Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.

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.