An Early Look at the 2023 Mississippi Governor’s Race

Elections & Politics Policy Brief #63 | By: Ian Milden | February 16, 2023

Header photo taken from: The Daily Leader

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Recent poll shows tight race between Tate Reeves and Brandon Presley for MS governor.

Photo taken from: The Associated Press / The Clarion Ledger

Policy Summary

Three states hold elections for governor in years before the Presidential Election. This brief will look at the governor’s race in Mississippi, the only race this year where it is currently clear who the nominees will be. This brief will also discuss some current issues in Mississippi politics that could become important issues in the campaign.

Policy Analysis

Governor Tate Reeves (R-MS) is running for a second term. Reeves has previously served as the lieutenant governor and state treasurer, where he held both positions for eight years. 

Reeves defeated the last Democratic statewide officeholder, Attorney General Jim Hood, in 2019 by five points. In most circumstances, an incumbent Republican governor in the deep south is not a vulnerable incumbent. Reeves is a significant favorite to win reelection, but multiple issues in Mississippi politics are dragging down his popularity.

Rural hospitals have been closing at an alarming rate. The state health officer informed the Mississippi state legislature at the end of 2022 that 38 rural hospitals were at risk of closing in the near future due to funding issues. Many states, including states run by Republican governors, have expanded Medicaid to help hospitals keep their doors open. 

Mississippi is one of the few states that has not expanded Medicaid, despite polls showing strong support for expanding Medicaid in the state. Governor Reeves is opposed to Medicaid expansion and has asked legislators to block it. Reeves has also criticized officials in the state who have openly supported expanding Medicaid, which is increasing tension within the Republican Party.

In addition to healthcare being a significant campaign issue, the Reeves Administration is facing a significant and growing scandal with the Department of Human Services. The Department of Human Services operates many programs to help people and communities. These include programs funded by the Federal Government, such as the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). The misuse of these funds has become the biggest public fraud case in state history.


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The Mississippi Senate Medicaid Committee listens as State Health Officer Dr. Daniel Edney addresses them via a teleconference at the Mississippi Capitol in Jackson. Edney warned lawmakers that over half of the state’s rural hospitals are in danger of closing. Gov. Reeves and GOP leaders in the Mississippi House have continued to oppose expanding Medicaid, dismissing it as Obamacare expansion.

Photo taken from: Rogelio V. Solis / The Associated Press

(click or tap to enlargen)

An investigation conducted by the state auditor’s office found that millions of dollars intended for use as part of federal anti-poverty programs was diverted to wealthy individuals, including retired professional athletes such as Brett Favre, to fund projects that were not related to anti-poverty initiatives. Favre has paid some of the funds back, but the state auditor’s office is suing Favre for the rest of the funds. Favre is asking for the lawsuit to be dismissed. The state auditor’s office has also filed lawsuits against other individuals and entities to recover misused funds.

The former director of the Department of Human Services has already pleaded guilty to multiple crimes related to the Department’s fraudulent use of funds. Other individuals who received and misused funds have also pleaded guilty to financial crimes or are facing criminal charges from state prosecutors. Favre has yet to be indicted, but there is no indication that the investigation has concluded.

 

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Former Gov. Phil Bryant helped Brett Favre secure welfare funding for USM volleyball stadium, the legacy of which carries weight on the minds of Mississippi voters concerning government distrust and disregard of putting their interests on the forefront.

Photo taken from: Rogelio V. Solis / The Associated Press

Governor Reeves has attempted to blame his predecessor, Governor Phil Bryant, but records show that the fraud started during the Bryant Administration and continued during the Reeves Administration. Reeves was also the lieutenant governor under Bryant. Reeves has also fired Brad Pigott, the lawyer who was handling the civil fraud cases related to this scandal. The governor has accused him of getting improperly involved in state politics. Pigott said that he was only doing his job.

The federal government has not been heavily involved in this case even though federal dollars were fraudulently used. State Auditor Shad White worked with the local district attorney’s office on the initial indictments without contacting the federal government. White was appointed to be the auditor by Governor Bryant when the position became vacant. Bryant helped White win the election when his appointed term expired. Given the close relationship between White and Bryant, there are concerns that Mississippi’s state government won’t do a full investigation into this public fraud case.

The likely Democratic candidate for governor is Brandon Presley. Presley serves on the Mississippi Public Service Commission. The Mississippi Public Service Commission is responsible for regulating public utilities. Presley previously served as the mayor of a small town called Nettleton, Mississippi. Presley is not well-known in the state, but he is running on an anti-corruption platform that fits well with the state’s current environment. The anti-corruption platform may help Presley win the white voters he needs to compete statewide, which most Democrats have struggled with in Mississippi.

Early polls show that the race for Governor is starting in the margin of error, and polling data shows that voters are very concerned about the welfare scandal. While Mississippi remains an extremely hard state for Democrats to win in, Presley might have a chance to win if the scandals around Reeves’ administration continue to grow.

Engagement Resources​

Click or tap on resource URL to visit links where available 

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Brandon Presley’s Campaign Website

https://www.brandonpresley.com/

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Democratic Governors Association Website

https://democraticgovernors.org/

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