Opinion: How a Mississippi vote next week could foretell Democrats’ 2024 fate

Democrats are so accustomed to losing statewide elections in blood-red Mississippi that they hardly get all shook up about a candidate for governor anymore. Yet days before Tuesday’s election, polls have Democratic nominee Brandon Presley — second cousin to that other Presley, who lived “up the road in Tupelo,” as Brandon says — in a tight race with the scandal-sullied Republican Gov. Tate Reeves, in what the nonpartisan Cook Political Report called “the most surprising race” among several gubernatorial contests in this off-year election season.

Opinion Columnist

Jackie Calmes

Jackie Calmes brings a critical eye to the national political scene. She has decades of experience covering the White House and Congress.

To win, Presley must generate high turnout among Black voters, who comprise 38% of eligible voters in Mississippi, a larger share than in any other state. By Presley’s own math, to get an outright majority and avoid a runoff, Black voters need to make up 34% of the electorate — the same as in 2008, when Barack Obama was elected president, but more than in the two previous governor contests — and 9 out of 10 must choose him.

That’s the rub: Black turnout.

As James Carville, the longtime Democratic strategist in next-door Louisiana, repeatedly bellyaches on his podcast and TV appearances, Democrats nationwide are failing to mobilize Black voters, and especially young Black voters, in numbers their party needs to win elections.

Carville didn’t even take much solace last year when Democrats won far more contests in the 2022 midterm elections than either party expected. As he looks toward 2024, and frets about the outlook for President Biden’s reelection, he laments, “The biggest story in my mind out of 2022 is abysmally low Black turnout.”

That makes the race in Mississippi, where it’s been 24 years since a Democrat was elected governor, something of a test case for the party — a test of getting Black voters to believe that Democrats hear them, and that their votes matter.

Presley leans hard into a personal story that is even more hardscrabble than Elvis’ origin story, and that resonates with voters in his impoverished state. He lives in what he calls “a no-stoplight town,” Nettleton, and in the same house where he grew up able to look through holes in the floor to dirt below. (It’s nicely renovated now, as a campaign video shows.)

His alcoholic father was murdered when Presley was 8. The family was “so poor we had our power cut off.” Now he regulates utilities in northern Mississippi as a fourth-term member of the state’s Public Service Commission, after serving as Nettleton’s mayor. A conservative Democrat, the only kind with a prayer of getting elected statewide in Mississippi, Presley is pro-gun rights, anti-abortion and populist.

Reeves, says Presley, just “looks out for himself and his rich friends” — like the ones who gave new meaning to the phrase “welfare cheats” by bilking state welfare funds for personal uses. (Reeves denies involvement because he wasn’t governor then, but he was lieutenant governor and head of the legislative committee that oversaw state welfare spending.)

Presley campaigns on promises to address crying needs — particularly in healthcare and education — while Reeves reflects his party’s fixation with culture warring. A headline on the news site Mississippi Today captured the dichotomy: “In new TV ads, Presley promotes helping poor Mississippians while Reeves pushes trans athletes ban.”

It’s a wonder that Reeves would virtually make up a problem, which affects a negligible portion of his population at most, when he’s failed to address the travails that afflict so many of his constituents.

Mississippi resides deep in the nation’s basement when it comes to measures of overall poverty, child poverty and maternal health and mortality. And Reeves remains adamantly opposed to the one policy that could do most to improve lives: Expanding Medicaid by accepting billions of dollars in federal funds under the 2010 Affordable Care Act to help hundreds of thousands of Mississippians get health insurance.

Meanwhile, hospitals in the state are closing, strapped by too many patients who can’t pay. Yet Reeves vowed in his annual State of the State address to “stand up to the left’s push for endless government-run healthcare.” Presley, who’s vowed to work to expand Medicaid, responded from a shuttered E.R.: “It’s no surprise that we lead the nation in the deaths of children under the age of 1. How is that pro-life?”

Reeves mostly just tries to tie Presley to Biden. On Tuesday he got help from former President Trump, who released a video prattling that “Biden’s people” will “own” Presley. Reeves also sought to tar Presley by association with another Democrat, California Gov. Gavin Newsom, only to have Presley counter that Reeves and Newsom “deserve each other — they both belong to a jacuzzi-soaking, penny-loafer-wearing bunch of elitists.”

Presley has been competitive with Reeves in raising money, and the national Democratic Party has invested more than in past Mississippi races. He’s credited as a good campaigner, drawing bigger, more diverse crowds than recent Democratic gubernatorial candidates.

Reeves started the year heavily favored given Mississippi’s political bent. But he’s shown some weakness within his party, while Presley has made inroads — among some white moderates but especially must-have Black voters. He’s had help from the state’s most prominent Black Democrat, Bennie Thompson, former chair of the House Jan. 6 committee, and even from Oscar winner and Mississippian Morgan Freeman.

So it was that the Cook Political Report shifted its take on the race: from “solid Republican” to “likely Republican” to, last week, simply “lean Republican.”

Presley just has to keep pushing, with a message that speaks to the Black voters in his state and persuades them there’s power in numbers — if they turn out. As Presley tells audiences, Republicans are “hoping that Black voters do not come vote in November.”

The same challenge goes for Biden and the Democrats next November. Their work should be well underway.


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