A Mississippi Walloping
The 2023 gubernatorial election was a stark reminder of how poorly Democrats are viewed in rural, small-town America.
Tuesday, November 7 was a bad day for Mississippi. Incumbent Republican Governor Tate Reeves rolled Democrat Brandon Presley 50.9 to 47.7 percent. This result smarts. Presley is a genuine policy entrepreneur with a down-home demeanor. Reeves, per Republican sources, is droll and unpleasant. Mississippi’s gubernatorial race pitted one of the nation’s most unpopular and scandal-plagued incumbents against a charismatic and talented prodigy.
Still, Presley did not even come close. Democratic struggles with rural, small-town voters reached a new low.
Yes, Andy Beshear won in Kentucky. While his victory was powered by eye-popping margins in cities and towns (Bowling Green, Frankfurt, the counties across from Cincinnati, Lexington, and Louisville), Beshear got walloped in rural Kentucky. This result along with Mississippi gives a sense of where Democrats stand in rural, small-town America. Thanks to the rural tilt of the Electoral College, these voters give Donald Trump a real shot in 2024. This struggle also makes building an enduring majority party at both the state and national levels all but impossible for Democrats.
Brandon Presley was seemingly created in a political laboratory. Reared in tiny Nettleton, Mississippi (population 1,995), down the road from the Tupelo hometown of his second cousin Elvis, at age eight Presley’s alcoholic father was murdered. Thereafter, the Presleys regularly lived without electricity, running water, or even a phone.
In 2001, the 23-year-old came home from college and was elected mayor of Nettleton. He has been running ever since. In 2007, voters elected him Public Service Commissioner for northern Mississippi, a post he has been re-elected to three times by wider and wider margins. An economic populist with down-home charm, Presley has forged a reputation as a one-of-a-kind political talent. Brannon Miller, a longtime state political hand, calls him Mississippi’s “best retail politician.” Another reporter has already termed him the “second best politician in state history.”
Popular with north Mississippi Republicans, it seemed possible that Presley could defeat an exceptionally weak incumbent. One Mississippi pol termed Reeves “a horrible politician.” Another longtime state journalist told me, “Tate Reeves has almost built a brand of not being a popular guy.” These jarring words are backed by the numbers. A January 2023 poll revealed 57 percent of Mississippi voters wanted an option beyond Reeves. Another early survey showed one in five Republicans leaning toward Presley. This is a state where Democrats last won a governor’s race in 1999 and Republicans hold supermajorities in the legislature. Puzzled by the surveys, I asked yet another Mississippi-based writer to explain. They put it bluntly, “Reeves is not likeable and is kind of arrogant.”
The incumbent’s terrible ratings were based on more than being a grumpy frump. On nearly every major issue, Reeves held the unpopular position. Presley pushed to eradicate the state’s grocery tax, the nation’s highest such levy. Eight in ten voters endorsed the Democrat’s plan. Not Reeves. An eye-popping 92 percent of voters expressed concern over the fiscal state of Mississippi hospitals. Nearly half of all rural hospitals hover on edge of bankruptcy and closure. Facing similar pressures, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma opted into Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion. Not Reeves. In Mississippi, 72 percent of voters back such a measure, including Republican Lt. Governor Delbert Hosemann. Presley made Medicaid expansion the centerpiece of his campaign.
Beyond policy is the welfare misuse scandal, the largest case of fraud in state history. Republicans, who control state government, funneled $75 million in federal funds meant for the needy to the well-connected and their interests. During Reeves’ tenure as lieutenant governor from 2017 to 2021, the state spent $5 million to build a volleyball arena promoted by Mississippi native and former NFL quarterback Brett Favre. Reeves’s personal trainer received a $1.3 million payout. The scandal has already sent several state officials to jail. Presley made welfare fraud and a promise to end corruption a central campaign issue.
Policy issues matter. Ballots, however, are more often swayed by an overriding “right track, wrong track” sentiment. On one level, Mississippians never had it better. Record employment and booming tax receipts tell one story. But demographic trends offer the deeper narrative. Nearly one fifth of all Mississippians live below the poverty level. Poverty and declining economic opportunity are pushing many, especially rural Mississippians, to leave. One of only three states to bleed population in the 2020 census, 64 of the state’s 82 counties lost people. And the state’s only sizeable city, state capital Jackson, is the “fastest shrinking” large city in America.
Mississippi has pockets of prosperity on the Gulf, college towns (Oxford and Starkville), Jackson’s exurbs, and the north Mississippi suburbs of Memphis. But Greenville (pop. 27,494) embodies what has come of many of the state’s towns and rural economy. In what was once the Delta’s stately economic capital and home to a Pulitzer-Prize winning newspaper, poverty now reaches 32.4 percent. First, cotton and river barge jobs dissipated. Then a Schwinn factory closed. Later a carpet plant and then a trailer company shut. In 2018, the town’s lone Salvation Army outlet unbelievably closed. Today, Greenville’s population is nearly half what it was in 1990.
Mississippians, especially those in rural areas and small towns, see the trend lines. An economic populist who speaks achingly of poverty and providing opportunity seemed to be an ideal candidate. Presley had every advantage in the race. Cleary more talented and likable than Reeves, he also had all the major issues and, unbelievably, a fundraising advantage. A new state party chair, Cheikh Taylor, supposedly had organized the notoriously dysfunctional Mississippi Democratic Party.
But on election day when Charlie Brown tried to kick the football, Lucy yanked it back yet again. Reeves won by 35,000 votes. To win, Presley needed vigorous black turnout along with 25 percent of the white vote. He got neither. Despite a record $20 million in campaign spending, turnout declined 11 percent from the 2019 gubernatorial race. To have any chance, Democrats needed a surge in Hinds, state’s most populous county and home to Jackson and a large trove of African American votes. Instead, 8,000 fewer votes were cast there in 2023 than 2019. The county election commission failed to print the state-mandated minimum of ballots. Precincts, unbelievably, ran out of ballots on election day despite poor turnout. In the end, Presley received 26,000 fewer votes in Hinds County than did Obama in 2012, a tally that accounted for more than half of his statewide deficit.
Most tellingly, Presley lost in his own northeast Mississippi backyard. For decades, the Mississippi hill country was home to “TVA Democrats.” Elvis’s hometown, Tupelo, was the first ever city electrified by the New Deal’s Tennessee Valley Authority. Indeed, the very idea of a federal program for rural electrification was born in nearby Corinth, Mississippi.
In 1934, FDR toured northeast Mississippi by train to see the TVA’s magic. Brandon Presley’s hometown has an historical marker commemorating where the train ran through town. I understand why. My grandfather once hoed cotton for 25 cents a day just north of Presley’s Nettleton. Toothpaste was so novel that, ignorant of its intended use, he spread it on a cracker when the health department first dispensed it. As a boy, my grandmother bragged to me that she shook Eleanor Roosevelt’s hand from the back of that train. Electricity was tangible proof of liberal activism aimed at helping struggling Mississippians, both black and white.
These TVA Democrats voted Democratic even a generation beyond the civil rights revolution. In 1976, their votes gave Mississippi and the White House to Jimmy Carter. In 1980, the region voted heavily Democratic again. Well into the early 2000s, TVA Democrats were the white voter fulcrum upon which Mississippi Democrats built a bi-racial coalition large enough to win and control state government.
The Democratic brand in rural, small-town America has since become toxic. Reeves steamrolled Presley by taking 70 percent of the northeast Mississippi vote. Presley, the hill country native, had won four races with these voters as public service commissioner. As a kid, he ran his uncle’s county sheriff races. For three decades, the forty-six-year-old had campaigned with these voters. Twenty years ago, the Democrat would have won this race. In 2023, Presley got stomped.
Mississippi is not a foreign country. This 2023 result is yet another indicator of the Democratic Party’s wholesale wipeout in rural, small-town America. In 2024, Joe Biden may very well defeat Donald Trump on the strength of urban and suburban voters. Barely defeating the nation’s most unpopular politician may save democracy, for one election cycle at least, but it does nothing to build an enduring majority that can truly discredit Trump and his brand of autocratic politics.
Without rural, small-town voters, Democrats cannot hold the Senate or possess anything but the narrowest of House margins. In my adopted home of Pennsylvania, Josh Shapiro can win the governor’s mansion. But the Democrats hold a bare 1-seat statehouse majority and are a minority in the state senate. Democrats cannot build lasting majorities based on Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and college towns alone. Imagine what could be accomplished if Democrats were competitive in rural America? For a start, thousands of Mississippians would get healthcare. Rural hospitals would remain open. But that won’t happen.
Democrats have hit rock bottom in rural, small-town America. The first step in recovery is admitting the problem. Democrats, are you ready?
Jeff Bloodworth is a professor of history at Gannon University (Erie, PA). Bloodworth holds a Ph.D. in modern United States history from Ohio University’s Contemporary History Institute. (Twitter: @jhueybloodworth)