Mississippi Democratic gubernatorial nominee Brandon Presley speaks to voters at a meet-and-greet campaign event for Black women on Friday, October 6, 2023, in Jackson, Mississippi. (AP Photo/Michael Goldberg)

American politics are defined by the rural-urban divide. Democrats own the major cities; Republicans dominate smaller cities and the countryside. Brandon Presley aims to change that, at least in Mississippi. The 46-year-old Democrat is challenging the GOP incumbent, Tate Reeves, for the governorship. If he wins, he would be the Magnolia State’s first Democratic governor in a generation. 

But a Presley victory is potentially something more. To win, the Democrat must score well with Mississippi’s rural voters. Such a turnabout would redound across the nation. William Browning, a Mississippi-based reporter, claims “If Brandon Presley beats Reeves, this changes the way people view elections.” In other words, a Presley victory could shake the nation out of its rural-urban divide. It would prove that Democrats can win rural America, and prompt Republicans to woo the cities. 

Presley’s campaign is an uphill climb. Mississippi is the definition of a Republican stronghold. The GOP controls every statewide office and possesses supermajorities in both the state Senate and House. The race will be decided by rural voters, a Republican-leaning demographic. Sixty-five of Mississippi’s 82 counties are designated as rural (using the nonmetropolitan definition) and more than half of the state population, 54%, qualify as the same. 

Despite these realities, Presley has more than a puncher’s chance at victory. Reeves is vulnerable. A January 2023 survey showed 57% of state voters wanted an option beyond Reeves. A June poll was even more ominous for the incumbent. One-fifth of Republicans supported Presley over the GOP incumbent. A Mississippi political observer explained these numbers bluntly, “Reeves is not likeable and is kind of arrogant.” 

Presley’s prospects go beyond an unpopular incumbent. Every observer of any political stripe agrees that he is a one-of-a-kind political talent. Brannon Miller, a longtime state political hand, calls him Mississippi’s “best retail politician.” One reporter already termed him the “second best politician in state history.” 

Tall, gregarious, and oozing Southern charm, he is, as one Democratic official described him, “a back-pattin’ doesn’t-know-a-stranger Democrat.” He is also equipped with a biography straight from a Hollywood script. Second cousins with Elvis, Presley was born dirt poor. Raised just down the road from Elvis’s Tupelo, he came of age in tiny Nettleton, Mississippi (population 1,995). At age 8, his alcoholic father was murdered. Thereafter, his single mom struggled to provide for him and his two siblings, Greta and Greg. The family regularly lived without electricity, running water, or a phone.  

In 2001, the 23-year-old came home from college and was elected mayor of Nettleton. He has been running ever since. In 2007, voters elected him Public Service Commissioner for northern Mississippi, a post he has been reelected to three times by successively wider margins.

Presley is not a standard issue “national” Democrat. He steers clear of divisive social issues. Pro-life on abortion, he is an evangelical Christian who hews to Mississippi’s cultural mainstream.  He is also a self-described “populist.” Born from his rough-and-tumble childhood, Presley also draws upon the rich tradition of Southern economic populism. Dana Burcham, the Nettleton city clerk, sums up Presley’s philosophy in saying, “He’s for the little people.” 

Presley’s populism is apparent in his rhetoric. He defines his politics as one in which, “you side with the people against a system that is set up against the people all day long.” But his populism is also obvious in his record. As mayor and public service commissioner, he focused upon bread-and-butter issues for his rural and small-town constituents. Nettleton’s current mayor, Phillip Baulch, and Burcham credit Presley as the source of the town’s turnaround. Mayor Presley turned abandoned property into parks, audited the city’s books, balanced the budget, and cut taxes. The results are tangible. Storefronts abound with commerce. Downtown is tidy. Nettleton, if not thriving, is surviving. 

Representing northern Mississippi on the Public Service Commission, he has maintained his populist path. Expanding rural broadband and opposing rate hikes and the Kemper coal-gasification plant earned him reelection in a heavily Republican district. The latter evolved into a massive state scandal. And Presley was Mississippi’s lone official who challenged what became a $7.5 billion corporate boondoggle.

Presley has charisma and a popular record. But he also has the issues. Polls reveal that Mississippi voters overwhelmingly side with his stances. The Democrat backs Medicaid expansion, a proposal Reeves opposes at a time when one-third to one-half of the state’s hospitals hover on the brink of bankruptcy. Surveys reveal that a majority of Republicans favor Medicaid expansion, which would keep these hospitals afloat. Presley’s work in bringing rural broadband to northern Mississippi also scores well with the state’s rural voters. 

But the main issue driving Reeves’ polls downward is the $75 million welfare-misuse scandal. During Reeves’ time as lieutenant governor, 2017-2021, Republican officials, who control state government, funneled millions aimed at the needy to the well-connected. The most high-profile of which include a $5 million volleyball arena promoted by Mississippi native and former Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre and a $1.3 million payout to Reeves’ personal trainer. Presley’s populist declaration, “I can’t be bought” is a zinger pointed at Reeves and the welfare scandal.

The Democrat has the charisma, the record, and a stance on the issues that spell victory. But polls show him still trailing Reeves. The Democrat’s problems are two-fold, race and the national party. From the 1960s through the late 1990s, Mississippi Democrats maintained control through a tenuous bi-racial coalition. This coalition fell apart in the early 2000s. Today, 90% of white Mississippians vote Republican. Black Mississippians vote Democratic at the same rate. To win, Presley must win a quarter of the white vote, which is overwhelmingly rural, and elicit a strong black turnout. 

In 2019, Mississippi’s Democratic Attorney General, Jim Hood, ran against Tate Reeves. Fearing he would turnoff rural whites, he never fully wooed the Black vote. He lost to Reeves by 40,000 votes. Presley’s strategy is summed up by Johnny “Mac” Morrow, a veteran Alabama state legislator, who volunteers for the campaign. He thinks, “workin’ people can come together” under Presley and move “Mississippi from the Stone Age.” 

Morrow’s “Stone Age” is Mississippi’s status as the nation’s poorest state. Nearly one-fifth of all Mississippians live below the poverty level. And rural Mississippian’s poverty rate, 20.5%, is significantly higher than their urban counterparts, 16.9%. Poverty and declining economic opportunity are pushing Mississippians, especially rural Mississippians, to leave

Tim Moore knows this. A native of Philadelphia, Mississippi, he left home for a job. Away from family, he discovered that his “demeanor” and “the way I talked to people” had coarsened. Troubled, he prayed for a job that could bring him home. Today, he is executive director of Philadelphia’s Community Development Partnership. It is now Moore’s responsibility to build opportunity so the young and educated can stay. He thinks Presley can help. Laughing, he admits that rural whites, like him, are “supposed to be a Republican.” But his rural county lacks broadband access. And its hospitals hover on the brink of bankruptcy. 

Time is ticking for rural, small-town Mississippi. To win, Presley must dispense with the old and appeal to Republicans, white Democrats, and Black voters. In the past such a coalition was unthinkable. But David Rushing, the Sunflower County Democratic chair, sees a different day. He counsels, “the only thing you can’t change is change.” He believes “if [white] Democrats turnout. They will vote Presley” not Reeves. Shalonda Spencer, a Mississippi native and D.C.-based progressive activist, concurs, to a point. Confederate monuments are down. The state flag is changed. Mississippi politics, in her estimation, is now “more than Black and white.” She warns that African Americans are tired of being a white “afterthought.” Presley must court this vote, avidly. 

Then there is the national Democratic Party. Ruy Teixeira, a longtime Democratic pollster, reports that Democrats have lost significant ground with working class voters of all races. According to Teixeira, the party’s “all-in” stances on controversial social issues have damaged the Democratic brand with working class voters. This cuts deep for Presley. Less than 25% of Mississippians have a college degree. The Mississippi vote is majority rural and overwhelmingly working class. Presley’s drive to build a bi-racial coalition is doubly complicated by a national party brand that is increasingly unpopular with working class voters of all races. 

Tim Kalich, editor of The Greenwood Commonwealth, has doubts about Presley’s chances. He puts it directly, “Presley won’t win.” The facts, to the veteran newsman, are clear. Mississippi is Republican. The incumbent is a strong fundraiser who has never lost a race. A fall television blitz will end Presley’s momentum. Finally, Kalich believes that energizing Black voters will push fence-sitting whites to Reeves. 

Randy Gill is stuck between Kalich and the “puncher’s chance.” The lifelong Philadelphia, Mississippi, resident owns and operates McClelland Café & Grocery. The 67-year-old African American exudes a quiet charm and keen intelligence. Of Presley, he “knows the name.” But he harbors doubts that the Democrat has any real chance. To him, little has changed. Sure, “they [whites] smile and say hello,” but he points to his neighborhood’s abandoned parks and MLK Boulevard, which, mysteriously changes its name once it reaches white areas. He shrugs and then sighs, “It is still a struggle. The struggle hasn’t changed.” 

Cheikh Taylor, the chair of the Mississippi Democrat Party, thinks Presley has a chance. The 50-year-old African American says of the Democrat, “He is a white guy. But he is a real white guy. The populist message to independent voters, it is a message that resonates with them. It is a “forgotten person” message. He talks to people who feel forgotten.” 

Presley’s bet is that a “forgotten person” campaign can win rural voters. The Mississippi gubernatorial race tests that gambit against the realities of the rural-urban divide. 

Jeffery H. Bloodworth is a professor of political history at Gannon University in Erie, Pennsylvania, and co-director of the university’s School of Public Service & Global Affairs. He is the author of the forthcoming book Heartland Liberal: The Life & Times of Speaker Carl Albert.

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