Conservative Mississippi is tough territory for Democrats, but the party sees an unusual opportunity this year to unseat first-term Republican Gov. Tate Reeves. They’re pinning hopes in November on a candidate with a legendary last name who has used his own compelling story to highlight the economic plight of working families in a state that has long been one of the poorest in America.
Democrat Brandon Presley is a second cousin of Elvis Presley, born a few days before the rock ’n’ roll legend died. While campaigning, Brandon Presley talks frequently about government corruption, focusing on a multimillion-dollar welfare scandal that developed when Reeves was lieutenant governor.
Presley, an elected member of the Mississippi Public Service Commission, is unopposed for the Democratic nomination for governor. He is pushing for Medicaid expansion to help financially strapped hospitals while telling voters about his own difficult childhood.
“I understand what working families in this state go through,” Presley told about 75 people at a restaurant in Grenada, a town on the edge of the Mississippi Delta.
The 45-year-old said he was just starting third grade when his father was murdered. Presley’s mother raised him and his brother and sister in the small town of Nettleton, earning modest wages from a garment factory. In his childhood home, “you could see straight through the floors into the dirt,” he said, and his mother struggled to pay for water and electricity.
“And let me say this to you clearly: When my name goes on the ballot in November, the names of families who have had their electricity cut off, who are getting up every day working for all they can to help their kids, to small business owners — your name goes on that ballot in November,” he said.
Mississippi is one of just three states with a governor’s race this year, joining Kentucky and Louisiana. All are places that historically have supported Republicans for statewide office, though Kentucky’s Democratic governor is seeking a second term.
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, described the three contests as “away games” but said Mississippi may be “the sleeper” — a state where the right Democrat could win. That’s despite voters twice heavily backing Donald Trump for president, the GOP holding all statewide offices and a supermajority in the Legislature and a Democrat not winning a Mississippi governor’s race so far this century.
Reeves, who faces two underfunded opponents in the Aug. 8 primary, has the advantage of incumbency: 31 governors of U.S. states or territories sought reelection last year, and only one lost. Reeves had about $9.4 million in his campaign fund at the end of May, far more than the $1.7 million Presley reported. Republicans also say national Democrats’ enthusiasm for Presley’s bid could be a liability.
Reeves, 49, was a banker from a Jackson suburb before winning his first statewide office 20 years ago. He is campaigning on a record of reducing the state income tax, increasing teachers’ pay, restricting abortion access and banning gender-affirming medical care for people younger than age 18. He also is casting this as an “us-versus-them” election, portraying Presley as part of a national Democratic operation far removed from the realities of life in Mississippi.
“My friends, this is a different governor’s campaign than we have ever seen before in our state because we are not up against a local yokel, Mississippi Democrat. We are up against a national liberal machine,” Reeves told more than 200 supporters at a campaign event in the Jackson suburb of Richland. “They are extreme. They are radical and vicious.”
Reeves said outsiders look at Mississippi with “scorn,” but the state has momentum.
“Are we going to let them stop us?” Reeves asked, and the crowd responded: “No!”
“Are we going to let them make Mississippi conform to California values?” Reeves asked. Again, the response was “No!”
Presley was 23 when he was elected mayor of Nettleton in 2001. During his second term leading the town of 2,000, he won the northern district seat on the Mississippi Public Service Commission, a three-member group that regulates utilities. He is completing his fourth term this year.
As Presley campaigns, he combines blunt criticism of Reeves with gospel and bluegrass songs that affirm the connection to his famous cousin without leaving the impression that he has chosen the wrong line of work.
In Grenada, Presley said a $100 million financial package that legislators and Reeves approved for hospitals this year was a “cheap, dollar store clearance-aisle Band-Aid” when Medicaid expansion could bring the state about $1 billion a year from the federal government.
Murphy said Presley’s style has been winning over donors. At an event Presley attended in New Jersey with Murphy, they exceeded their fundraising goal.
“We’ve got a great candidate. This guy’s the real deal,” Murphy said. “When you listen to what he would do on Day One as governor, you say, ‘You know what? That’s exactly what Mississippi needs.’”
Four years ago, Reeves won the governorship by defeating four-term Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood by 52% to 47%, with two lesser-known candidates in the race.
This year, one independent will be on the general election ballot. Republicans like their chances, given the state’s politics and Reeves’ history of five statewide wins: two for state treasurer, starting when he was 29; two for lieutenant governor; and one for governor.
“Democrats are desperately trying to create a mirage when it comes to Mississippi,” said Republican Governors Association spokesperson Courtney Alexander. “The reality is that Brandon Presley is bought and paid for by national Democrats, while Gov. Reeves’ record of historically low unemployment, historically high graduation rates, and substantial pay raises for Mississippi educators speaks for itself.”
About 38% of Mississippi residents are Black — the highest percentage of any state — and Black voters are vital for Democrats to have any chance of winning statewide.
Janie Houston, a retired kindergarten teacher who attended Presley’s event in Grenada, said some Black voters might not bother to show up in November because Republicans drew legislative districts specifically to protect wide majorities in the Legislature.
“That’s the point of doing all that gerrymandering,” Houston said.
Democrats, she added, are not putting enough support behind down-ballot candidates to offset that advantage.
“They need to come face-to-face with Black voters and any other voter,” she said. “That’s just the way it is. I just don’t think they’re putting enough money behind the candidates to get people to come out in the communities.”
The most influential Black politician in Mississippi, Democratic U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, did not endorse Hood in the 2019 governor’s race because he said Hood never asked him to. But Thompson endorsed Presley at the outset of this year’s campaign, and the congressman said he will provide any support Presley requests in the coming months.
Thompson said Presley worked with him to help the tiny rural community of Schlater get safe drinking water after the pump for a water well broke, and that Presley has helped other needy areas get reliable electricity. After a tornado devastated the small town of Rolling Fork this spring, Thompson said, “one of the first calls I got was from Brandon Presley asking me what could he do?”
Thompson said Presley found generators in Louisiana to provide electricity for an armory in Rolling Fork that became a disaster relief spot.
“That’s the kind of person, the Brandon Presley that I know,” Thompson said in an interview. “It’s easy to support somebody who demonstrates that they care about people.”
The Reeves campaign event in Richland was in a large, air-conditioned warehouse for a construction equipment dealership. One of the spectators was Terry Felder, a retired offshore oil rig worker who said he voted for Reeves in 2019 and will again this year because he believes Republicans do a better job of controlling government spending.
Felder acknowledged Mississippi has problems but said he thinks the state is in “pretty good shape.”
“Every survey they have, if it’s a bad survey we’re at the top of the list. If it’s a good survey, we’re at the bottom,” Felder said. “But when you’re here, it doesn’t seem that way.”