With the 2023 gubernatorial election cycle now kicking into full swing, Split Ticket is previewing and rating each election. We’ve already broken down the Kentucky gubernatorial race in a previous article, but today, we’ll be finishing off the set by discussing Mississippi and Louisiana.
If a poster child existed for “unpopular incumbent governor embroiled in scandals”, Tate Reeves would probably be it. Reeling from the fallout of a welfare mismanagement fiasco that saw aid cut to 90% of Medicaid recipients and redirected to celebrities like Brett Favre, Reeves has drawn a strong Democratic challenger in Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley, making Democrats giddy with hope at the prospect of flipping the governor’s mansion of the Magnolia State for the first time in two decades.
Initial polling shows that the optimism may not be entirely unfounded. Two recent surveys have shown the race as close; a January poll from Siena College, fielded before Presley’s launch, showed Reeves leading Presley 43–39, with a surprising amount of undecided voters, and a February poll by The Clarion-Ledger showed Presley actually leading Reeves, 47–43. The incumbent governor’s continued troubles are manifesting in polling at the moment, with a large amount of the state seemingly dissatisfied by his performance.
A deeper look at the polls confirms that Reeves may not actually be able to take his re-election for granted in this ruby-red state. For instance, while his topline approval numbers in the Siena poll seem satisfactory at 48–45, a look under the hood suggests some slight warning signs, especially with respect to intensity. Reeves’ approval is broadly lukewarm, with “somewhat approve” at 33%, compared to an emphatic “strongly disapprove” number of 27%. And perhaps most concerningly for the incumbent, about twice as many voters strongly disapprove of him than those who strongly approve.
Reeves’ favorability in the same survey is negative across geographies, but certainly bottoms out in the majority-Black MS-02, at a net negative 20%. While his unfavorables are very much driven by low marks from women and Black voters, a net negative 23% “unfavorable” among independents should set off some alarm bells in the Governor’s office. Moreover, the governor actually trails Presley with independents, 33—31.
The Siena College poll also showed that 57% of Mississippians wanted “someone else” to run for governor — while that finding, in and of itself, means little (voters always want “someone else”, but can’t agree on who exactly that should be), a more concerning point for the governor may be a recent survey from the Democratic-aligned firm Tulchin Research, where a full 54% of voters polled had an unfavorable view of him and only 42% approved.
The reason for Reeves’ relative weakness is due to a massive welfare scandal that has engulfed several celebrities and Mississippi politicians alike. In this saga, welfare funds intended for low-income residents were diverted to former NFL quarterback Brett Favre and his pet projects (such as a volleyball arena and indoor football facility for his alma mater) at the behest of former GOP governor Phil Bryant. But Tate Reeves was involved as well, diverting some funds to his personal trainer and friend and using the power of the governorship to cover up the scandal by firing the independent prosecutor investigating it.
This episode has turned into the largest welfare abuse story in state history, and it appears to have sunk in with voters. In the aforementioned Tulchin Research poll, 92% of voters said they were aware of the scandal, with 55% saying they had heard “a lot” about it. More concerningly for Reeves, 64% said they had a negative impression of his role in the scandal. All of these data points suggest that while Reeves is the clear and obvious favorite to win re-election in this Trump +16 state, he has some very real vulnerabilities that may need to be addressed during his campaign.
Reeves’ Democratic opponent Brandon Presley is perhaps the only statewide Democrat who may be able to capitalize on some of these missteps. Presley has represented the Northern District of the Mississippi Public Service Commission (PSC), covering Tupelo, Oxford, DeSoto County, and Columbus, since 2007. His PSC district encompasses the entire 1st Congressional District and the northernmost dozen counties of the majority-Black 2nd Congressional District.
Presley’s continued electoral success has defied the otherwise rigid national partisanship of Mississippi, with double-digit margins of victory in 2007, 2011, and 2015. In a sign of his localized strength, Republicans declined to run a challenger against him altogether in 2019, in acknowledging his status as one of the last few Mississippi Democrats to continuously pull strong numbers with white voters.
Could this strength somewhat carry over to a statewide race, like the one for the gubernatorial mansion? Possibly. Presley is largely undefined, with a name ID of 39 percent overall. But familiarity and positive sentiment towards him is localized within Misssippi’s 1st Congressional District (contained entirely within his PSC seat), where his name ID was 59% in recent polling, and favorability at a net +33 (45 to 12).
There is enough electoral data to suggest that Presley might be able to achieve significant white crossover in his own district, where his name ID and favorables are highest. He was, by far, the most dominant Democrat in 2015 and outran Jim Hood (who won by 11 statewide) by 8 points on margin. In fact, if Mike Espy had gotten anything approaching Presley’s white margins in his astoundingly close 2018 Senate challenge against Cindy Hyde-Smith, he probably would be a Senator today.
The problem for Presley, however, is that he faces the unique challenge of needing to pull Jim Hood’s 2019 numbers with whites in the rest of the state while also getting Black turnout on par with Espy’s incredible 2018 Senate run. While Presley’s elections and polls suggest strength with whites in MS-01, he has minimal reach into the majority-Black MS-02 and even less into the state’s other two districts, where his name ID is under 30%. For all of Reeves’ vulnerabilities, Mississippi is a state where racial polarization is synonymous with elections, and where crossover voting is exceptionally rare. And simply put, there is little recent history to support the notion that enough white voters in the rest of the state are likely to pull the lever for a Democrat unknown to them.
If this were any other state, Presley might arguably be an outright favorite to win this race. The problem, of course, is that he happens to be running in Mississippi, which has among the highest levels of racial polarization in the nation. Large swaths of this state may loathe Reeves, but several of the Republicans who dislike him have no intention of pulling the lever for a Democrat. While Presley has pulled off immense overperformances before, like with his win in a Trump +22 Public Service Commission district, it is much more difficult to get this against an incumbent governor in a statewide race (as popular Attorney General Jim Hood found out in 2019’s open contest), and so we rate this matchup LIKELY REPUBLICAN. Presley has a chance, and a clear one. But it is an outside shot at the moment, and a mid-to-high single digits loss to Reeves is currently the most likely outcome.
This race is shaping up to be a shootout between a cadre of strong Republican candidates, including Attorney General Jeff Landry, Treasurer John Schroeder, and state Senate Majority Leader Sharon Hewitt. None of these candidates are as problematic as 2015 nominee David Vitter, who was embroiled in a prostitution scandal before losing to conservative Democrat John Bel Edwards by 12 points.
Edwards, who shares a name with Edwin Edwards — arguably Louisiana’s most famous modern state executive after Huey Long — immortalized his strength as a candidate in 2019, when he beat Republican businessman Eddie Rispone 51–49.
His slim victory was nothing short of amazing for a Democrat in what was a Trump +20 state in 2016.
While Edwards obviously failed to engender the same level of rural Republican crossover support from regions like the Acadiana (once Edwin Edwards’ home base), he still comfortably outperformed Hillary Clinton throughout the outstate.
In a sign of the times, though, parishes in the greater New Orleans area like Jefferson (home to the historically-Republican suburb of Metairie) swung visibly left relative to 2015 despite the Democratic statewide margin falling by double-digits. Much of that discrepancy can be attributed to Vitter’s being a Jefferson native son while Rispone hailed from the Baton Rouge area, but the change is still noteworthy.
With Edwards term-limited and no powerhouse heir apparent waiting in the wings to replace him, Louisiana looks bleak for Democrats this year. Their best candidate is probably Edwards’ transportation secretary, Shawn Wilson, but he may not end up running.
In that event, Democrats would probably be left with 2022 Senate nominee Gary Chambers — a progressive community activist. Other possible candidates include Senator Gary Smith, Mayors LaToya Cantrell and Sharon Westin Broome, and ex-Lt. Governor-turned White House advisor Mitch Landrieu.
In our view, Louisiana’s racially-polarized red hue makes the open race to replace Edwards SAFE REPUBLICAN. The burden of proof is on Democrats to select a nominee capable of making the contest competitive by appealing to the right mixture of both white and black voters.
Notes On Our Other Gubernatorial Ratings
In Kentucky’s high-stakes gubernatorial contest, incumbent Democratic Governor Andy Beshear is very popular and has consistently led in current polling. But there’s a lot of uncertainty between now and November and Attorney General Daniel Cameron (the favorite of national Republicans) is not a shoo-in for his party’s nomination. Read more about our Tossup rating here in our article previewing the race.
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I’m a software engineer and a computer scientist (UC Berkeley class of 2019 BA, class of 2020 MS) who has an interest in machine learning, politics, and electoral data. I’m a partner at Split Ticket, handle our Senate races, and make many kinds of electoral models.
My name is Harrison Lavelle and I am a political analyst studying political science and international studies at the College of New Jersey. As a co-founder and partner at Split Ticket, I coordinate our House coverage. I write about a variety of electoral topics and produce political maps. Besides elections, my hobbies include music, history, language, aviation, and fitness.
Contact me at @HWLavelleMaps or email@example.com
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