Democrats Are Holding Their Own in Kentucky and Mississippi

Democratic candidate for Mississippi Governor Brandon Presley; Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear Credit - Rogelio V. Solis—AP; Ryan C. Hermens—Lexington Herald-Leader/Tribune News Service/Getty Images

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For months, it’s been widely accepted that the Democratic Party and its brand are in trouble, that President Joe Biden has been a drag that no candidate or cause can escape, and 2024 is shaping up to be a “rematch from hell” between the incumbent and his immediate predecessor. Yet a curious thing is happening, and it’s happening in two reliably red states.

In Mississippi and Kentucky, Democratic nominees for Governor are holding their own heading into this final week before Election Day 2023. In fact, the non-partisan Cook Political Report—a tipsheet for race-by-race analysis that is indispensable—last week moved the Mississippi contest from likely Republican to lean Republican, a shift that caught a lot of Washington insiders’ attention. Democrats and Republicans alike acknowledge that the move was not unfounded given how a Democratic challenger, Brandon Presley, has run a tight campaign, and the Republican incumbent, Gov. Tate Reeves, remains both unpopular and a walking binder full of bad stories about his first term.

Still, both Pressley and Reeves are far from assured to get 50% of the vote, which dictates a runoff on Nov. 28. Independent candidate Gwendolyn Gray dropped out of the race in early October but her name was already printed on ballots. Public polling is hard to come by in the state, but neither party is feeling cocky this late in a campaign.

(The state will at least be spared the extra hoop in Mississippi election law that, until 2020, required a candidate to win the majority of the statewide vote and win a majority of 122 state legislative districts. Failing that, the Mississippi House could unilaterally declare a winner under a law that dated to 1890, when those in power systematically sought to disenfranchise Black voters after the Civil War.)

Presley, a former small-town mayor, current four-term utility regulator, and second cousin of Elvis Presley, caught national Democrats’ eye early. Although he crossed party lines in 2004 to endorse President George W. Bush’s re-election campaign, he has been working his crowd to build the kind of multi-racial coalition needed for Democrats to win in a state where the last of their own to serve as governor was 20 years ago. Former President Donald Trump carried Mississippi by more than 16 points in 2020 and carried it by almost 19 points four years earlier. Presley’s biggest problem, strategists say, is not enough people know who he is or have an opinion of him.

Reeves, on the other hand, is known. That doesn’t always work in his favor, and Presley is working that angle hard. Reeves won his first term four years ago by a relatively narrow 4 percentage points after stints as Lieutenant Governor and state Treasurer. Most analysts credit a last-minute endorsement from Trump for his survival as the nominee. For a state that posts the highest percentage of residents living in poverty, Reeves’ dismissal of Medicaid as welfare and his refusal to expand the program as allowed under Obamacare has been a ripe target. That puts Mississippi linking arms with just nine other states that have declined the option. Oh, and $98 million meant to fight poverty instead paid for lobbyists, football games, and a contract with retired NFL star Brett Favre.

Others, especially white voters, are steamed that Reeves responded to the Covid-19 pandemic with restrictions like mask mandate and caps on indoor gatherings—although he held his own holiday parties a la Boris Johnson. And, because this is still Mississippi, a small but vocal subset of conservative activists are incensed that Reeves retired Confederate iconography from the state flag in the wake of racial justice protests.

In the last full finance report due before Election Day, filed Tuesday, Presley reported raising $11.2 million since January. Despite the power of incumbency, Reeves raised $6.2 million in the same window.

Money, of course, is no guarantor of success. But it cannot be ignored. Just ask Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, who has lapped his Republican opponent, Attorney General Daniel Cameron, three full times in fundraising. Beshear’s most recent fundraising tally shows him raising more than $17 million through the end of August. Cameron, by contrast, raised $4.6 million through the same window. In the most recent independent polling of the state, Beshear is enjoying a 16-point advantage. Keep in mind that Kentucky last voted for Trump by a 26-point margin but gives their Democratic Governor some of the best marks that any of his colleagues can point to.

Beshear is perhaps the Democratic Party’s most unsung reader of his home state. Despite Kentucky’s deep-red hue—Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul both represent the state in the U.S. Senate—Beshear is a low-key moderate who is already getting the speculative treatment about a promotion, perhaps the promotion. Even so, Democrats are cautious there, too. After all, Beshear won his first term in 2019 by only 5,086 votes against a hard-right incumbent, Matt Bevin.

This time around, Republicans nominated Cameron, a Black, 37-year-old former McConnell lawyer who helped confirm Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court. Cameron can straddle both the establishment wing of the GOP as well as its MAGA elements after a well-received turn speaking at the Republican convention in 2020 with a pointed message to fellow Black voters.

Still, the race seems to have slipped through Republicans’ hands with a first-time candidate. Public and private polling alike has shown Beshear with a consistent advantage. And Cameron’s criticism of Beshear, his former colleague at a Kentucky law firm, as a tool of national Democrats in the culture wars has fallen flat in no small measure because no one can credibly cast the incumbent as a woke warrior.

Regardless of the outcome, neither the Kentucky nor Mississippi races suggest national Democrats are out of the woods of their own making. In Louisiana, for instance, Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat who is term-limited, will be followed by a Republican. The lone major Democratic candidate, Shawn Wilson, a former chief of the Louisiana Transportation and Development Department, conceded after Attorney General Jeff Landry earned 52% of the vote in the first round of voting, negating the need for a runoff after a crowded primary. Edwards was the only remaining Democratic Governor in the Deep South, and Landry will be just the fourth Republican to lead Louisiana since Reconstruction’s end. All of which helps to explain Democrats’ intense interest in cheering on Presley in this final push.

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