Brandon Presley: The underdog Democrat who could pull off a gubernatorial upset

Mississippi is a red state, that’s a given, and Gov. Tate Reeves stands a good chance at re-election this year given his incumbency in said red state.

But Democrats have at least a decent shot in Public Service Commissioner and distant Elvis Presley cousin Brandon Presley, the kind of Blue Dog official with enough in common with Republicans to woo moderates — he’s pro-gun and opposes abortion. Pair that with Reeves’ ties to the recent welfare scandal, ad Presely at least plays in the race.

While numerous former state officials have been charged in the welfare scandal, in which $77 million in state funds were misappropriated from 2017 to 2020, Reeves hasn’t. But that doesn’t mean his hands are totally clean. NFL legend Brett Favre sought Reeves’ help using welfare funds to build a volleyball facility at his alma mater, and the school his daughter attends, Southern Miss, the Mississippi Free Press reported. 

Reeves also has shaky relationships within his own party and faces potential GOP challenges from outgoing House Speaker Philip Gunn, Secretary of State Michael Watson and former state Supreme Court Justice Bill Waller Jr.

Reeves would have the upper hand in such challenges, given support as an incumbent from the state party, but there is past precedent for incumbents facing a Primary challenge. Democratic former Gov. Ray Mabus in 1991 managed to fend off a Primary challenge, but the damage he incurred in the process led to his ultimate defeat in the General Election to Republican Kirk Fordice.

Presley also has another new advantage — this will be the first gubernatorial contest in Mississippi in about 100 years to be decided by popular vote. Previously, candidates had to win a majority of the vote in a majority of the state’s legislative districts, similar to the national electoral college model. If a candidate failed to win both the popular vote and carry a majority of districts, the House, which is solidly red, would elect the Governor. Voters scrapped that process in favor of a popular vote electoral process. 

If Presley, who voted for George W. Bush in the 2004 presidential election, can peel off moderate Republican voters through his populist message as an “FDR Democrat,” he may be able to muster an upset. It would require robust Black voter turnout, something Presley is already working on with the roll out of an endorsement from Rep. Bennie Thompson that coincided with the first day of his campaign. 

Still, any Democrat, even a Blue Dog like Presley, will be the underdog in Mississippi. A Siena College/Mississippi Today poll conducted in early January found Reeves leading Presley with 43% of the vote to Presley’s 39%.

But it’s a race worth watching, with the same poll finding 57% of respondents preferred “someone else” over Reeves. Presley also has already banked $1 million for the race. 

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