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What It Takes for a Democrat to Be Competitive in the Deep Red South
Three lessons from the campaign of Mississippi gubernatorial candidate Brandon Presley.
BRANDON PRESLEY IS NOT INTERESTED in your Yankee bullshit.
Amid the stretch run of his shockingly competitive gubernatorial bid, he called me as his car headed north from the Mississippi Gulf Coast to the Tennessee line. He was quick to explain how it was that his improbable campaign has gotten this far. “I’m a Merle Haggard, cowboy boot–wearing Democrat. I’m not a national Metropolitan Opera Democrat . . . and there’s a big difference.”
Maintaining this essential differentness is the minimum ante for Democratic politicians who want to be successful in the deep red Deep South, and with six days to go until the off-year election, Presley is at the table.
Last week the Democratic Governors Association (DGA) released an internal poll that showed Presley just one point behind incumbent governor Tate Reeves. The DGA has put its money where its mouth is, pumping significant resources into the race as part of a late surge that has resulted in Presley outraising Reeves nearly 4 to 1 in the last three months of the campaign.
I wanted to get a sense for why the Presley campaign has a pulse at all—especially because I’m sitting across the border in Louisiana, where the Democrats’ hopes died a few weeks back when insurrectionist Republican Jeff Landry won the governorship in the first round of our state’s jungle primary, having garnered over 50 percent of the vote.
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What I discovered is that the contrast between Presley’s differentness as a candidate and the crushing, clichéd sameness of Mississippi’s corrupt incumbent Gov. Tate Reeves is the reason this campaign has politics as usual in the state all shook up.
And regardless of whether the result leads to victory, there is much that can be learned about how candidates who don’t sing in the tune of the national party’s contralto can overperform in unexpected places.
SO LET’S BREAK DOWN THE THREE MAIN ELEMENTS that brought Presley’s campaign to where it stands today.
Number one is Presley’s bio. To get Republican voters in Mississippi to open their ears to your candidacy, you have to have some tie that binds. Something to give you credibility.
For Presley, having a slightly more famous second cousin from Tupelo probably doesn’t hurt. But it’s Presley’s story that is more important. His campaign’s introductory ad begins in Nettleton, a “no-stoplight town” where Presley grew up, equidistant from the state’s flagship and land grant universities.
Check it out: Presley narrates the ad in his Northeast Mississippi Appalachian drawl, sitting in the yard in front of the ranch-style home that his parents brought him to as a small child that he still lives in today. He points back at the house saying “we could see through the floor straight down to the dirt” as Old Glory waves in the breeze. He then pays tribute to his mother who worked at the local garment factory to make ends meet and laments the tragedy of his father, an alcoholic who was “murdered in cold blood” when Presley was in third grade. And then comes the story of his decision to come home to Nettleton after college to run for mayor, where he “balanced the budget and cut taxes twice.”
Presley tells the viewer all this about himself before he gets to thornier hot-button issues or any sort of contrast with his upper-class-coded opponent. That’s important.
Because anyone who is open to learning the basics about Presley will find here an implicit message that is absolutely crucial. His bio ensures there is no mistaking him for the Tracy Flick–type liberal that everybody in these towns knows—the top-of-the-class striver who leaves home as soon as possible for the big city, and comes back later in life to inflict those elitist values on everyone else.
By simply demonstrating that he is not that type of Democrat, Presley has earned himself the opportunity to have a little more conversation with the voter.
His bio also plays into the relatability gap between himself and Reeves. Presley called the incumbent a “cardboard cutout of a candidate” during our talk; with his standard Republican fit and frat-boy nickname, Reeves does seem to play right into this generic country club caricature. His fancy renovations to the governor’s mansion, which included a “meditation garden” and a limonaia (apparently a kind of greenhouse for lemon trees), sure didn’t help either.
Jack Fairchilds, a far-right radio host in Mississippi who opposes Presley but is not particularly fond of Reeves, talked about this personality gap on a recent show. “Tate (Reeves) doesn’t come across as a likable individual. And when you see him on TV ads, they don’t really help him,” he said. “But when you see Brandon Presley on TV, there’s something more about him that comes across more likable.”
The question is how many voters are open to the conversation Presley is trying to start. National Republicans are spending millions on TV trying to make him out to be a crypto-progressive devil in disguise, and they are assuredly reaching people who don’t know anything about Presley’s mama’s work in the garment factory. And that same DGA poll that showed Presley down by one point also revealed that one in three likely voters didn’t yet have an opinion of him.
So while a compelling personal narrative might help open doors to the highly attuned voter, it’s not enough on its own to offset the number of folks who are just showing up on game day in their team jersey.
THE SECOND ELEMENT: Combating Republican ads by demonstrating an independence from the national party on hot-button issues. On this count, Presley has blown the dust off a well-worn red-state Democratic playbook that has fallen out of vogue in recent years for reasons I can’t quite divine: He’s positioned himself on the center-right on a number of cultural issues while leaning in hard on economic populism and government accountability in a state that has fallen badly behind its peers.
When I asked him to explain where he fits in our politics, Presley described himself as fiercely independent, someone who doesn’t take orders from the “national Democratic Party, the national Republican Party, the Chamber of Commerce, or the Mississippi Economic Council.”
“I’m very far from a national Democrat. I’m a populist more than anything else. I don’t believe the fight in Mississippi is right versus left as much as it is the people on the outside versus the . . . few on the inside,” he said.
His ads feature the family Bible, his opposition to gender surgery for minors and “boys playing girls sports,” an express commitment to “pro-life” values, and even a “Let’s Go Brandon” chant. (Get it? Get it?)
When I asked him about leaning in on some of these cultural issues, he didn’t back down or seem uncomfortable as he rattled down the list.
“I think I’m very much in the mainstream of Mississippi political thought. I don’t support sex changes for minors, I don’t support boys playing girls’ sports,” he said. “I’m pro-life but I strongly believe in exceptions for rape, incest, and life of the mother.”
When I pressed him on whether he has concerns about access to women’s health care in the state and balancing that with his pro-life convictions, he tied his cultural views back to his core populist message.
I’m pro-life, I’m pro-life beyond just the abortion issue. I’m pro-life because I’m pro-hospital. I am pro-pediatrician. I am pro-mother. I am pro-baby. I am pro-emergency room. I am pro-OB-GYN. I’m not just pro-life on the abortion issue: I’m pro-life from the womb to the tomb, and I believe that we should have health-care access throughout the state. In the Mississippi Delta, you’ve got one pediatrician per 4,000 kids. That’s a shame and a disgrace. Tate Reeves ought to have to wear that around his neck like a scarlet letter. . . . He claims to be pro-life, but he’s anti-living.
This balance between taking centrist cultural stances that might upset progressives and leaning in on kitchen-table issues where he is aligned with the left (and some on the populist right) is absolutely necessary to make the whole thing work. Last week when I was talking with James Carville about the race and how the math might work for Presley, he expressed as much concern about the base turnout—particularly among black voters—as about crossovers.
To beat Reeves, Presley will need to hold on to the folks “who have a Donald Trump flag waving on their flagpole and a Brandon Presley sign in their yard” (the candidate gleefully shared an anecdote about just such a family from Alcorn County, where Trump won by a gentleman’s 64 points in 2020) while also increasing the share of the vote among black voters and Democrats.
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His campaign’s approach is to prioritize speaking to the latter groups about how to address problems that are plaguing the working class and rural poor—for instance, improving access to healthcare, increasing the number of doctors and nurses, and expanding Medicaid, plus cutting regressive taxes on things like groceries and proposing fixes for government failures in heavily black parts of the state. (One such proposal is a revamped sewer system in the town of Itta Bena, which is more than 90 percent black.)
ALL OF THAT IS WELL AND GOOD as far as strategy is concerned, and more Democrats in red America could learn from Presley’s positioning.
But let’s be honest. Even if Presley is running a perfect campaign, there is no reason this should be a race at all. This is Mississippi, for godsakes. They haven’t had a Democratic governor since good ol’ Ronnie Musgrove left office almost twenty years ago.
Here’s where the final element comes in. The Republican opponent has to make mistakes. Bad mistakes.
While Tate Reeves hasn’t been caught with a “dead girl or a live boy,” he has presided over one of the largest public corruption scandals in history—one that happens to involve a former NFL star, which makes the story nice and juicy for the newspapers.
The gist of the scandal is this: Mississippi has been receiving nearly $100 million a year in welfare funds through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant. Rather than disburse all that money to the neediest residents of one of America’s poorest states, the Mississippi Department of Human Services gave money to nonprofits purportedly serving low-income communities. The state auditor found tens of millions were spent improperly, with the malfeasance including handouts to Brett Favre, who wanted his daughter’s school to have a new volleyball stadium, and, most amusingly, motivational speaking fees for former WWE wrestler Ted “The Million Dollar Man” DiBiase.
I guess everybody’s got a price.
And so Reeves gave Presley the stick to hit him with. The ad writes itself: A horse ranch, a volleyball stadium, even a million dollars to his own personal trainer—and when the investigator got too close, Tate Reeves fired him.
This is a particularly valuable type of scandal for Democrats like Presley to exploit because it is about something that is fundamentally not partisan. It’s more about “outside versus inside” and “down versus up” than it is about left versus right.
And that’s the key.
Partisan-coded scandals often don’t amount to much when the votes are cast. Louisiana’s governor-elect, Jeff Landry, has had some of his own. He participated in the Trump coup and stiff-armed his gay brother, to name a couple. But in general, Republican voters are—let’s be honest—basically on board with the coup, and have no issues with a good anti-gay shunning.
By contrast, Tater’s oopsies don’t really land on that left-right axis.
Yes, even Republicans feel that disgust even though the welfare agency was overseen by a popular Republican governor who implemented extremely conservative welfare policy. An example of that: After breaking much of the scandal with our “The Backchannel” investigation, a self-described conservative who is a minister in rural Mississippi told us, “I like what y’all do. You’re a little bit woke, but I like the welfare and Favre stuff.”
Just yesterday, the outlet reported on another government cronyism controversy in which top donors to Reeves got $1.4 billion in government contracts from the state. More ammo for Presley in the last days of his campaign.
ALL THIS PLAYS right into Presley’s theory of the case.
His parting message for me is that he’s an “Appalachian, Scotch-Irish, born-fightin’ type of politician who doesn’t take orders from anybody,” someone who is gonna “walk into the capitol, find the biggest bees’ nest, and throw a rock right in the middle of it” as long as it helps the “average working Mississippian.”
By getting this far, Presley has already demonstrated that there are at least some Trump voters who are gettable for Democratic politicians who can push that message with credibility.
The question for Tuesday is whether In These Polarized Times there are too many Cletuses and Tates voting a straight party line to keep Presley from getting over the top.