Why Brandon Presley thinks he could pull off an upset win in the Mississippi governor's race

And why incumbent Republican Tate Reeves tries to tie him to liberal "radicals."

November 7, 2023, 5:04 AM

JACKSON, Mississippi -- Third-generation pitmaster Brian Jackson knows a few things for certain.

He knows how to perfectly smoke fall-off-the bone ribs, the kind that are famous statewide, slicked just so with his grandmother's proprietary special sauce. And he knows that he is all-in on Democrat Brandon Presley's underdog bid to unseat Republican incumbent Gov. Tate Reeves on Tuesday.

But Jackson, who runs the celebrated Black-owned Leatha's in deeply conservative Petal, knows this, too: His support alone won't cut it.

"In Mississippi, Black voters, we stick together," Jackson told ABC News. He tends to serve white customers, most of whom he presumes are conservatives, who tend to "say negative things about Tate Reeves ... but you watch their voting? They're going to stick together."

In Jackson's view, that puts the onus on his community to deliver a clear victory in what could, just maybe, be a nail-biter of an election night.

"Without Black support? I don't believe he could [win]," Jackson said of Presley.

Nearly 40% of Mississippi's population is Black -- the largest of any state -- which is one of the many reasons, Presley told ABC News in an interview, that he poured significant resources since last spring into Black voter engagement and turnout, such as campaigning at the homecoming for Jackson State University, which is historically Black.

Presley alleges Reeves has abandoned the state's Black residents, though Reeves, for his part, has touted his work with some Black community leaders.

In aggressively reaching out to Black voters, Presley is changing up the Democratic playbook in a state that still trends heavily conservative. Four years ago, then-Attorney General Jim Hood lost to Reeves by about 45,000 votes with a campaign seen as courting white moderates.

"Too many Democratic politicians across the country just expect Black voters to vote for them because they're a Democrat, and I have wanted to earn the support of Black voters by not only talking about issues that Black voters care about -- [but] also showing up in their communities," Presley said.

But Cathy McNair, a longtime leader of a local federation of Democratic women, said she has deep concerns that the enthusiasm around Presley from Black voters could fall flat, sensing a lack of urgency from voters she engages with to actually get to the polls on Election Day.

PHOTO: Mississippi Democratic gubernatorial candidate Brandon Presley greets supporters during a campaign stop, Nov. 6, 2023, in Jackson, Miss.
Mississippi Democratic gubernatorial candidate Brandon Presley greets supporters during a campaign stop, Nov. 6, 2023, in Jackson, Miss.
Brandon Bell/Getty Images

"There is a complacency of despair" from her Black peers, said McNair, who is also Black. "I don't think that we've made the case effectively that voting for Brandon ... can actually turn it around on these people who don't care about us to say, 'We do have somebody now who will advocate for us.'"

538's polling average shows Reeves leading Presley, though not always by very much. McNair said she thinks Presley "has a chance, but we felt the same way about Mike Espy," a Black Democrat, former congressman and former secretary of agriculture who twice tried and twice failed to become a U.S. senator in Mississippi.

Presley winning would be an upset: A Democrat hasn't led the state in nearly two decades and former President Donald Trump handedly won Mississippi both in 2016 and 2020. There's also the possibility that neither candidate reaches 50% on Tuesday, forcing a run-off election in late November.

National Democrats are eager to be competitive in the state -- just look at their spending. The Democratic Governors Association invested more than $5 million in the race and party officials say they believe Presley has a real shot in part, perhaps, because he's an atypical Democrat.

While Presley's embrace of the Black electorate sets him apart from Hood, he is following Hood's lead in another way and hoping to succeed where Hood couldn't: The former mayor of small-town Nettleton and member of the state's public service commission has sought to differentiate himself from national figures like President Joe Biden and the party's high-profile progressives.

Instead, Presley has run as a populist, evoking glimmers of former President Trump when he rails against outside spending, corruption and group think in Mississippi as well as Washington.

"If I get elected governor, nobody from the president of the United States, either political party, is ever going to tell me what to do. Period," Presley said at a rally in Hattiesburg on Thursday.

"Unlike [Reeves], I can't be bought," he said -- just one example of how Presley has tried to link Reeves to corruption allegations including a state government welfare spending scandal that emerged under the administration of predecessor Phil Bryant, when Reeves was lieutenant governor.

Reeves' team has dismissed the jabs as "nonsensical."

Reeves has also sought to tie Presley to Biden, a deeply unpopular figure in conservative parts of the country, and figures like Georgia's Stacey Abrams, California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Mississippi Rep. Bennie Thompson -- whom Reeves has called "far left radicals."

Trump waded in as well, saying in one video, "Joe Biden wants to put his candidate and this is his candidate, Brandon Presley, in as Mississippi's governor. They own him. [Presley] will do whatever they want him to do."

Presley has played down any connection other than a shared party.

PHOTO: Mississippi Democratic nominee for governor, Brandon Presley, speaks to reporters, Nov. 6, 2023, in Jackson, Miss.
Mississippi Democratic nominee for governor, Brandon Presley, speaks to reporters, Nov. 6, 2023, in Jackson, Miss.
Rogelio V. Solis/AP

"This race is about Mississippi squarely, it's not about national issues -- quite frankly, I don't need a backup," he said when asked if he'd want Biden's support on the ground. "I can handle this race myself. I'm just as disappointed in so many things in the Biden administration as the next person."

And unlike many Democrats -- except candidates like Hood and some others in the South -- Presley backs major abortion restrictions. He's supportive of the state's current ban on all abortions with exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother.

Presley said he is "pro-life from the womb to the tomb. And I believe that we should also care about those senior citizens that are out there today who can't afford medicine -- can't get to the doctor."

That's a smooth transition to an issue that is at the center of his campaign, and where he most aligns with other Democrats: expanding health care in the country's poorest state.

He's continuously hit Reeves' objection to expanding Medicaid coverage, a move that could significantly bolster resources for the working poor and keep hospitals solvent. Reeves, for his part, has called it an unacceptable growth of welfare in the state and offered his own plan to increase hospital funding through taxes.

"At the end of the day, what we have determined is it does not make sense for the people of Mississippi," Reeves said at his debate with Presley.

But Presley's support for Medicaid is persuading at least some voters across the aisle.

"I don't want to drive two hours to Memphis for somebody to work on me. I want to have health care availability here," Chip Wood, a Republican alderman and prior Reeves voter, told ABC News. To support Presley, Wood created "Let's Go Brandon" stickers, a tongue-in-cheek reference to how conservatives mock Biden.

Presley relishes the cross-party support and said he believes those in the GOP are "some of his strongest supporters."

His views on abortion also appear to be making him more acceptable.

"If he was pro-choice, certainly that would write him off completely with many people, including myself," said Wood.

Will it be enough to marshal the votes to do what no other state-wide Democrat has done in Mississippi in decades?

If nothing else, Presley does have his family name: Yes, he's second cousins with rock 'n' roll legend Elvis Presley -- a fact he's not shy about bringing up.

"I darn sure don't think it hurts me," Presley said of the relation. "He's widely loved in the state of Mississippi by Black Mississippians and white Mississippians .. and I can tell you right now: If he was alive today, he'd be voting for me."

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