GRENADA, Mississippi (AP) — Conservative Mississippi is tough territory for Democrats, but the party sees an unusual opportunity this year to overturn Republican Gov. Tate Reeves’ first term. They are pinning their hopes in November on a nominee with a legendary surname who used his own compelling story to shine a light on the difficult economic situation 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 days before the rock ‘n’ roll legend died. During his campaign, Brandon Presley frequently speaks out about government corruption, focusing on a multimillion-dollar social 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 the expansion of Medicaid to help financially struggling hospitals while telling voters about his own difficult childhood.
“I understand what working families in this state are going through,” Presley told about 75 people at a restaurant in Grenada, a city on the edge of the Mississippi Delta.
The 45-year-old said he had just started third grade when his father was murdered. Presley’s mother raised him with his brother and sister in the small town of Nettleton, earning a modest salary in a garment factory. In his childhood home, “you could see straight through the floors in the dirt,” he said, and his mother struggled to pay for water and electricity.
“And let me tell you this clearly: when my name is on the ballot in November, the names of the families who have had their electricity cut off, who get up every day working to help their children, the small owners of business – your name will be on that ballot in November,” he said.
Mississippi is one of only three states to hold a gubernatorial race this year, joining Kentucky and Louisiana. All are places that have historically backed Republicans for statewide office, although Kentucky’s Democratic governor is seeking a second term.
New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, president of the Democratic Governors Association, described the three competitions as “outside games” but said Mississippi could be “the sleeper” – a state where the right-wing Democrat could win. And this, despite the fact that voters twice strongly supported Donald Trump. for president, the GOP holding all state offices and a supermajority in the Legislature and a Democrat who hasn’t won the race for a Mississippi governor so far this century.
Reeves, who faces two underfunded opponents in the Aug. 8 primary, has the starting advantage: 31 U.S. state or territory governors sought re-election 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 reported by Presley. Republicans also say National Democrats’ enthusiasm for Presley’s candidacy could be a liability.
Reeves, 49, was a suburban Jackson banker before winning his first statewide job 20 years ago. He is campaigning on a record of cutting state income taxes, increasing teachers’ salaries, restricting abortion access and banning gender-affirming medical care for children. persons under the age of 18. He also presents 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.
“Friends, this is a gubernatorial campaign unlike any we’ve ever seen before in our state, because we’re not up against a local jerk, the Democrat of Mississippi. We’re up against a liberal machine. national,” Reeves told more than 200 supporters at a campaign event in the Jackson suburb of Richland. “They’re extreme. They’re radical and vicious.”
Reeves said outsiders look at Mississippi with “contempt,” but the state has momentum.
“Are we going to let them stop us? Reeves asked, and the crowd replied, “No!”
“Are we going to let them bring Mississippi in line with California values? Reeves asked. Again the answer 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 North District seat of the Mississippi Public Service Commission, a group of three members that regulates public services. He is completing his fourth term this year.
As Presley campaigns, he combines direct criticism of Reeves with gospel and bluegrass songs that affirm the connection to his famous cousin without leaving the impression that he chose the wrong line of work.
In Grenada, Presley said a $100 million financial package that lawmakers and Reeves approved for hospitals this year was a “cheap band-aid in the clearance aisles of dollar stores” as the Medicaid expansion could bring the state about $1 billion a year from the federal government.
Murphy said Presley’s style appealed to donors. At an event Presley attended in New Jersey with Murphy, they exceeded their fundraising goal.
“We have an excellent candidate. This guy is the real deal,” Murphy said. “When you listen to what he would do on his first day as governor, you say, ‘You know what? This is exactly what Mississippi needs.
Four years ago, Reeves won the governorship by beating Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood for four terms by 52% to 47%, with two lesser-known candidates in the race.
This year, an independent will be on the ballot in the general election. Republicans like their chances, given state politics and Reeves’ history of five statewide wins: two for state treasurer, from the age of 29 years ; two for Lieutenant Governor; and one for the governor.
“Democrats are desperately trying to create a mirage when it comes to Mississippi,” Republican Governors Association spokeswoman Courtney Alexander said. “The reality is that Brandon Presley is being bought and paid for by National Democrats, while Governor Reeves’ record of historically low unemployment, historically high graduation rates and substantial salary increases for Mississippi educators speaks for itself. themselves.
About 38% of Mississippi residents are black — the highest percentage of any state — and black voters are essential for Democrats to have a chance to win statewide.
Janie Houston, a retired kindergarten teacher who attended Presley’s event in Grenada, said some black voters might not bother running in November because Republicans have designated legislative precincts specifically. to protect large majorities in the Legislative Assembly.
“That’s the point of doing all this gerrymandering,” Houston said.
Democrats, she added, don’t give enough support to the downside candidates to outweigh that advantage.
“They need to come face to face with black voters and every other voter,” she said. “That’s how it is. I just don’t think they put enough money behind the candidates to get people out in the communities.”
Mississippi’s most influential black politician, Democratic U.S. Representative Bennie Thompson, did not endorse Hood in the 2019 gubernatorial race because he said Hood never asked him. But Thompson endorsed Presley early in this year’s campaign, and the congressman said he would provide any requests for Presley’s endorsement in the coming months.
Thompson said Presley worked with him to help the small rural community of Schlater get clean water after a water well pump failed, and Presley helped other needy areas get clean water. 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 he could do?”
Thompson said Presley found generators in Louisiana to supply power to an armory in Rolling Fork that became a disaster relief location.
“He’s the kind of person, the Brandon Presley that I know,” Thompson said in an interview. “It’s easy to support someone who shows they care about people.”
The Reeves campaign event in Richland took place in a large air-conditioned warehouse of a construction equipment dealership. One of the onlookers was Terry Felder, a retired offshore oil rig worker who said he voted for Reeves in 2019 and will do so again this year because he thinks Republicans have better control over government spending.
Felder acknowledged Mississippi was having issues, but said he thinks the state is in “pretty good shape.”
“Every investigation they have, if it’s a bad investigation, we’re at the top of the list. If it’s a good investigation, we’re at the bottom,” Felder said. doesn’t seem to be the case.”
Burnett reported from Chicago.