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Mississippi Gov. Reeves faces 2 GOP rivals in Tuesday's primary, while Democrat Presley is unopposed

Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves is hoping to breeze past two newcomers in a party primary and secure the Republican nomination for governor

Emily Wagster Pettus
Tuesday 08 August 2023 05:08 BST

Gov. Tate Reeves is hoping to breeze past two political newcomers in the state's primary election Tuesday and secure the Republican nomination as he seeks a second term, setting up a general election contest with Democrat Brandon Presley.

Reeves says Mississippi has momentum with a low unemployment rate and steady job growth, while Presley — a cousin of rock ’n’ roll icon Elvis Presley — says Reeves is out of touch with people who struggle to make ends meet in one of the poorest states of the U.S.

Presley is running unopposed for the Democratic nomination.

Reeves has largely ignored his Republican primary challengers, who have run low-budget campaigns: John Witcher, a physician who criticizes COVID-19 vaccinations, and David Hardigree, a military veteran.

Mississippi is one of three states holding races for governor in an off-year election. Republicans hold all statewide offices in Mississippi and have held the governorship for the past 20 years. But Democratic Governors Association chair Phil Murphy has predicted the contest could be a “sleeper” — a state where the right Democrat could win.

Presley, 46, was born a few weeks before his famous relative died. He is a four-term member of the Mississippi Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities, and he often talks about growing up in a home where his widowed mother had trouble paying bills with the modest paycheck she earned at a garment factory.

“I understand what it means to just scrape by. I understand how working people are," Presley said. "And for all of those in Mississippi that are left out, that Tate Reeves doesn’t know exist – families like mine don’t exist in Tate Reeves’ mind – when my name goes on the ballot in November, your name goes on the ballot.”

Presley says he wants to eliminate the state’s 7% tax on groceries. He also says Mississippi should join 40 other states that have expanded Medicaid coverage to people working low-wage jobs that do not provide private health insurance coverage.

Reeves, 49, has steadily worked his way up the political ladder since winning the race for state treasurer in 2003. He served two terms as treasurer and two terms as lieutenant governor before winning the governor’s race in 2019.

Reeves opposes Medicaid expansion, often referring to the government health insurance program as “welfare.”

“Brandon Presley and his party are happy to see people go on welfare,” Reeves said. “He campaigns on wanting more welfare. He thinks welfare is a destination. I think … a job is a destination for everyone in Mississippi – a job with benefits and healthcare and a chance to move up in the world.”

Reeves tells voters that “national liberals” are backing Presley, and he often touts two laws he signed limiting the rights of trans people: one in 2021 that prohibits transgender people from playing on girls’ or women’s sports teams and one this year that bans gender-affirming health care to transgender people younger than 18.

Reeves signed an income tax reduction into law last year and wants to eliminate the state income tax altogether. He also says he has fulfilled a 2019 campaign promise to increase teacher pay.

Presley and the Republican nominee will face independent candidate Gwendolyn Gray, a first-time candidate, in the Nov. 7 general election. Gray, 68, leads a nonprofit organization called the Southern Foundation for Homeless Children, which offers nutrition programs, and says one of her main concerns as governor would be alleviating poverty.

Mississippi on Tuesday also has a three-person Republican primary for the second-highest office in state government, with first-term Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann facing state Sen. Chris McDaniel and educator Tiffany Longino.

Although the governor and lieutenant governor run as a ticket in some states, they run separately in Mississippi. The lieutenant governor presides over the state Senate, chooses Senate committee leaders and has great leeway in deciding which bills live or die.

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