Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves on Tuesday won the Republican nomination as he seeks a second term, setting up a general election contest against Democrat Brandon Presley in the heavily conservative state.
Reeves defeated two first-time candidates: John Witcher, a physician who has criticized COVID-19 vaccinations, and David Hardigree, a military veteran.
Presley, a cousin of rock ’n’ roll icon Elvis Presley, ran unopposed.
"The national Democrats think Mississippi is theirs for the taking," Reeves told supporters on Tuesday night in Jackson. "They've circled our state, and they've hand-picked their candidate...these national Democrats think they can use him to inject their liberal ideology into Mississippi under the guise of being a moderate."
Presley said the Nov. 7 general election would come down to which candidate, "and I believe that’s me, has got guts and the backbone to stand up for the people of Mississippi and which candidate has consistently showed us that he will do whatever his lobbyist buddies want him to do and will not stand up for the people of Mississippi."
Mississippi is one of three states holding races for governor in an off-year election. Despite Republicans holding all statewide offices, including the governorship for the past 20 years, Democratic Governors Association chair Phil Murphy has predicted the contest could be a "sleeper" - a state where the right Democrat could win.
In his hometown of Nettleton, Presley took the stage at his victory party to "See See Rider," the song Elvis Presley often used as walk-on music. The candidate said he would not sing, though.
"We’re trying to get votes," Presley said in a phone interview before he was scheduled to speak to supporters. "We’re not trying to lose them.
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 closed schools at the beginning of the pandemic and put some restrictions on businesses as COVID-19 cases spread, but he never ordered churches to close and he has often bragged that Mississippi was among the first states to remove limitations from businesses.
He also 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 health care 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.
"Mississippi has momentum, and this is Mississippi's time," Reeves said.
"To believe Brandon Presley’s campaign, you’ve got to believe that none of that is true."
Presley, 46, a member of the Mississippi Public Service Commission, has highlighted the struggles of working families in one of the poorest states in the U.S. as he has campaigned for governor.
Born a few weeks before his famous relative died, Presley 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.
"Tate Reeves doesn’t care anything about us. He doesn’t care anything about working people," Presley said. "If you can’t write a campaign check, or you’re not part of his little club of buddies and insiders, you’re shut out of state government."
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.
Dr. Martha Morrow, an optometrist who practices in Alabama but lives and votes in Mississippi, said she supports Presley because she sees him as an honest person who wants to improve the quality of life. Morrow said it’s crucial to expand Medicaid to people working low-income jobs.
"We’re going to have to stop the rural hospitals from closing," Morrow said. "Tate Reeves can say all he wants to that, it’s not a problem. It’s a problem. If you’re sick and you can’t get to a hospital because your hospital’s closed - people are dying already. And it's going to continue."
Sue Varner, a retired hairdresser from the Jackson suburb of Madison, said she voted for Reeves.
"I just like the way he handled COVID. I think he did a good job," said Varner, adding that she has never received a COVID-19 vaccination because she does not trust them.
Reeves and Presley will also face independent candidate Gwendolyn Gray, a political newcomer, in the 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 had a three-person Republican primary for the second-highest office in state government, with first-term Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann battling to avoid a runoff against state Sen. Chris McDaniel. Educator Tiffany Longino trailed in a distant third.
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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