Will Brandon Presley — an Elvis cousin — be Mississippi’s next governor?
The candidate has generated excitement among Democrats that he can defy the odds to defeat GOP Gov. Tate Reeves in November.
JACKSON, Miss. — Brandon Presley is hoping that a populist message, the fallout from a massive scandal and his famous family name will help make him the first Democratic governor of Mississippi in 20 years.
“Mississippians have seen what is going on in this system, and they're sick of it," Presley, his party’s presumptive nominee, said Tuesday at an event on the steps of the state Capitol building. "We're going to make big campaign check-writers mad. We're going to make lobbyists mad. We're going to make special interest people mad, because they’ve had their day in Mississippi long enough.”
Mississippi is one of three states that will hold elections for governor this November. Democrats haven’t won a governor’s race in the state since 1999, and the state has a strong GOP lean, with former President Donald Trump having won it by more than 16 points the last two presidential elections.
But the Republican Gov. Tate Reeves's relatively narrow margin of victory in 2019 — 5%, or about 45,000 votes — has some in the party believing this is their best chance in years for a high-profile statewide win.
Who is Brandon Presley?
Presley, 45, was raised by a single mother after the murder of his father when he was in third grade. He grew up in an environment he described to Yahoo News as “extremely poor, I think you could honestly call it abject poverty.”
Presley won the mayor’s race for his hometown of Nettleton in 2001; he was 23 at the time. In 2007, he was elected to the Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities, and has been in that role ever since.
As commissioner, he was an early opponent of the Kemper Power Plant, a multibillion-dollar “clean coal” boondoggle, and worked to expand broadband internet in rural areas.
And yes, the Democrat is related to a more famous Presley, which he briefly acknowledges in his campaign launch video by holding up a photo of his second cousin, who grew up down the road.
The familial connection to "The King" is something Presley says comes up “every day” on the campaign trail, saying the attention has really escalated with the release of last year’s blockbuster biopic “Elvis.”
“Mississippi is proud of Elvis. I think his story was a story of somebody that started off with nothing,” said Presley, who gave his seal of approval to Austin Butler’s Oscar-nominated performance.
A massive scandal
Presley has spoken at length about a scandal that made national headlines last year: $77 million in funds meant for low-income families in Mississippi that instead went to friends and family members of state employees. The state auditor investigating the scam called it the “most egregious misspending my staff have seen in their careers.”
The highest-profile example was NFL Hall of Famer Brett Favre seeking millions to build a volleyball arena at his alma mater, the University of Southern Mississippi, while his daughter was on the team. Favre has not been criminally charged, but in April, a judge rejected his motion to be removed from a civil lawsuit. The former heads of the Mississippi Department of Human Services and a nonprofit organization have both pleaded guilty in their roles in the scheme.
One poll earlier this year found that 92% of Mississippi voters had heard about the scandal, with a majority saying they heard “a lot” about it, while the independent outlet Mississippi Today won a Pulitzer Prize last week for its reporting on the topic. Presley said it’s emblematic of how many in the state feel about the state government.
“Average Mississippians know, in their gut, that they've been sold out every day in state government,” Presley told Yahoo News, noting that it was on him to make the case to a “jaded” electorate that the change was even possible.
Reeves, who was lieutenant governor at the time, has denied he knew about the misappropriations and has not been implicated in any of the investigations. Presley said he views Reeves's decision last year to fire the former U.S. attorney leading the probe as a sign of his involvement, saying that the attorney Brad Pigott “was getting too close to Reeves’s sleazy little cabal of corruption we see. And he was asking too many tough questions.”
Presley’s pitch to voters
In addition to the welfare scandal, Presley has called attention to Reeves and his fellow Republicans’ refusal to expand Medicaid. Mississippi is one of just 10 states yet to adopt the Affordable Care Act provisions to help low-income residents, which has had a severe impact on its rural hospitals.
Three-quarters of voters in Mississippi, which has consistently been at or near the bottom of national health rankings, favored expanding Medicaid in a March poll. “I've been surprised at how many voters have this as a top issue in their mind,” Presley said. “Some of it is they just realized we're being stupid by not taking the federal dollars.”
He’s also spoken out against the state’s 7% grocery tax, the highest rate in the nation and a policy that 68% of Mississippians want eliminated, according to a January poll.
This is the first governor’s race since a Jim Crow-era law meant to dilute the Black vote was overturned through a ballot initiative in 2020. Under the new law, the top two vote-getters in the race for governor will head to a runoff if neither wins an outright majority in the first election.
Presley is aware he needs to drive up his name recognition (a poll last month found that 64% of voters didn’t know enough about him to have an opinion). But Democrats have fared better in Mississippi than in some neighboring states, such as Alabama, and Presley hopes an aggressive retail campaign can help counter some perceptions of his party.
“I've seen people who when I announced were probably upset that I was a Democrat running for governor,” Presley said. “And we talk, and they realize, ‘You know what, he ain't got three horns coming out of his head, and he's just he's the guy we've always known.’ You don't do that by sitting home and hoping people will come around.”
Presley differs from national Democrats in a few key ways, favoring both gun rights and the state’s restrictive abortion laws.
“Pro-life to me is not just on the issue of abortion,” Presley said. “I believe that pro-life also means pro-hospital, pro-emergency room, pro-ambulance, pro-doctor, pro-nurse. … It means making sure we expand Medicaid.”
Presley’s chances of winning
Reeves remains a formidable incumbent and has won election to statewide office five times. The state Republican chairman, Frank Bordeaux, told Yahoo News there was a lot of excitement about Reeves’s reelection effort, which comes without the long, expensive primary that the governor had to deal with four years ago.
Bordeaux noted that Presley does not have a high profile and touted the grassroots organization that the GOP has built up across the state.
“The one thing that I know that we have, that I'm very proud of, is we have folks in every county in the state that are engaged in the party,” Bordeaux said.
“These folks will go out to knock doors, put out signs, create events — we don't have to pay those folks. Brandon and the Democratic Party do not have that kind of organization across the state of Mississippi, and so that puts us even further ahead statewide.”
Polling last month showed Reeves with an 11-point lead. But a potential point of concern for the GOP is that 60% of voters said they’d prefer “someone else” as governor, as opposed to 36% who said they’d vote to reelect Reeves.