Politics / November 7, 2023

Can Elvis Presley’s Cousin Beat America’s Most Scandal-Plagued Governor?

Tuesday’s elections will decide a lot of questions, including whether populist Democrat Brandon Presley can win in Mississippi.

John Nichols
Mississippi Democratic gubernatorial candidate Brandon Presley speaks to reporters during a campaign stop on November 06, 2023 in Jackson, Mississippi.

Mississippi Democratic gubernatorial candidate Brandon Presley speaks to reporters during a campaign stop on November 6, 2023, in Jackson, Miss.

(Brandon Bell / Getty Images)

Tate Reeves is a desperate man. And desperate men do stupid things.

So stupid that Reeves, the incumbent Republican governor of the quite Republican state of Mississippi, went into Tuesday’s election facing not the easy path to a second term that Republican governors of Southern states have tended to enjoy in recent decades, but a contest that polls suggest could finish as a nail-biter.

Remarkably, as Election Day approached, political seers were suggesting that the contest for Mississippi’s top job could go to a runoff that the scandal-plagued and gaffe-prone Reeves might actually lose. That’s still a long shot. But if Democrat Brandon Presley were even to force a runoff in the Magnolia State, let alone win outright, it would be a headline-grabbing upset—and good news for Democrats—on an odd-year election day that will also see voters choose a governor in Kentucky, where Democrat Andy Beshear appears to be ahead; decide a high-stakes abortion rights referendum in Ohio; determine control of legislative chambers in Virginia and New Jersey; elect mayors in Houston, Philadelphia, Savannah, and dozens of other cities; and choose local leaders in races such as a Pittsburgh-area contest for Allegheny County executive that could put a young progressive, former state Representative Sara Innamorato, in charge of one of the most populous counties in the United States.

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Every contest matters on an election day that will give a sense of where things are headed in the 2024 presidential election. But no race has been so entertaining as the one in Mississippi—especially since Reeves started running scared. Or as weird.

Last week, the governor was ranting and raving about Presley posting a picture of himself with actor Morgan Freeman.

“Some folks fight for endorsements from Hollywood liberals, I prefer endorsements from truck drivers,” griped Reeves, a doughy career politician who is widely referred to as “Tater Tot.”

The dig at Presley and Freeman was a clumsy attempt by Reeves, a former financial portfolio manager with all the political pizzazz of a former financial portfolio manager, to come across as a champion of working people in a state where his much-criticized refusal to expand access to Medicaid has been especially hard on blue-collar families. The gambit blew up on Reeves, as the Internet exploded with messages ripping the governor’s attempt at cultural warfare. Even worse, Reeves appeared not to recognize that Freeman grew up in Mississippi and now lives on a farm near the north-central Mississippi town of Charleston. Freeman is, of course, an Academy Award–winning screen star with film credits such as Driving Miss Daisy and The Shawshank Redemption. But he’s also a local hero in the historic blues town of Clarksdale, where he owns and operates the Ground Zero Blues Club.

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So it came as no surprise that Presley, a second cousin of Elvis whose populist campaign has focused on building a multiracial working-class coalition to upend Reeves, would celebrate the support he was receiving from fellow North Mississippian Freeman. What was surprising was the way in which the buffoonish Reeves invited even more ridicule than he’s gotten during the course of a campaign that has been battered by headline-grabbing charges of financial misdeeds, personal foibles, and racial insensitivity by the governor.

After Reeves took his swipe at Freeman, the Internet lit up with messages from Mississippians who were aghast that the governor was “attacking one of Mississippi’s very own.”

Presley, a state public service commissioner who has won numerous races as a Democrat running in Republican-leaning regions of the state, relished the moment. “Tate Reeves is so silly that he’s attacking my endorsement from Morgan Freeman,” declared Presley. “I’ve got news for Tate, Morgan would beat him worse than I’m going to in this election, if he was running. Tate doesn’t even know Morgan lives in Charleston, Mississippi.”

The notion that Presley could beat Reeves seemed far-fetched at the start of the 2023 race. Mississippi hasn’t elected a Democratic governor since the 1990s, and in 2020 it voted for Republican Donald Trump over Democrat Joe Biden by a 16-point margin. The last time a Democratic presidential contender won the state was in 1976 when a former governor of Georgia named Jimmy Carter narrowly prevailed.

Carter ran in the heyday of what was referred to as “the new South,” when Democrats forged electoral coalitions of Black voters who had been enfranchised by the Voting Rights Act and moderate whites who were looking to the future rather than the past. Presley is trying to recreate that politics, running with strong support from the state’s most prominent Black elected officials, including US Representative Bennie Thompson, as well as the Mississippi AFL-CIO and newspapers such as the Greenwood Commonwealth, which last week hailed the Democrat as a “courageous candidate” who calls out “the insanity—for which Reeves is heavily responsible—of rejecting the federal government’s sweet offer to extend Medicaid benefits to an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 of the state’s mostly working poor.”

Presley has run one an energetic campaign featuring plenty of economic populism, a smattering of social conservatism that puts him to the right of the national party on issues such as abortion rights, and frequent references to cousin Elvis. The Democrat had attracted substantial funding and enthusiasm in urban and rural sections of the state that has the largest percentage of Black voters in the US. That’s helped him to close the gap with Reeves. According to a late-October Public Policy Polling survey, he had pulled him to within one point of Reeves, with the Republican at 46 percent and the Democrat at 45 percent. In a race so close, and with an independent candidate’s name on the ballot (though she has withdrawn and endorsed Presley), there’s a decent chance that this contest could go to a November 28 runoff election—much like the 2021 runoff elections that produced victories of Georgia Democratic US Senate candidates Jon Ossoff and the Rev. Raphael Warnock.

It’s still an uphill climb in such a state where the GOP has dominated in recent years. But Presley has the potential to get a last-minute boost from voters who are disgusted with Reeves. The PPP poll found that the governor was viewed unfavorably by 68 percent of undecided voters. Just 2 percent of those voters had a favorable impression of the incumbent. A lot of this has to do with accusations of corruption that have swirled around the governor in recent years.

The biggest scandal, which is widely seen as the most serious in the history of a state that’s seen its share of public corruption, involves the mishandling of tens of millions in funds by the Mississippi Department of Human Services. At issue are disbursements that went to nonprofits linked to prominent figures with ties to Reeves and other top Republicans.

The Presley campaign closed with a blistering condemnation of Reeves, declaring, “Nothing Tate Reeves says or does from now until Election Day will change his deep links to the scandal and how he failed to do anything to stop the $77 million of Mississippians’ tax dollars lost, stolen, or squandered on his watch. Reeves’ own brother was caught as a backchannel messenger, texting the state Auditor to ask him to praise [Mississippi native and former Green Bay Packers quarterback] Brett Favre after Favre received misspent taxpayer dollars for speeches and events that he failed to show up for.”

Presley pounded on that point in a heated debate last week with the befuddled incumbent.

“Seventy-seven million dollars was diverted for things like Brett Favre on a volleyball court; for Tate Reeves’ personal trainer (who got) $1.3 million dollars,” thundered Presley. “And what did Tate do? He fired the independent investigator. He delayed depositions 13 times indefinitely. He is at the center of the state’s largest public corruption scandal.”

It was a dramatic moment, of the sort that Presley has produced throughout a campaign that has seen the Democrat shake up the political calculus in a state Republicans thought they had locked down. And Presley’s finish has been suitably theatrical. A final ad featuring a video of Elvis singing “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” has Brandon Presley promising to make things “shake, rattle and roll” in Mississippi with a plan to expand Medicaid, rework the tax system to benefit working people, and “put corrupt politicians in jail.”

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John Nichols

John Nichols is a national affairs correspondent for The Nation. He has written, cowritten, or edited over a dozen books on topics ranging from histories of American socialism and the Democratic Party to analyses of US and global media systems. His latest, cowritten with Senator Bernie Sanders, is the New York Times bestseller It's OK to Be Angry About Capitalism.

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