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Could a Democrat make it to the Mississippi governor's mansion?

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Mississippi incumbent Governor Tate Reeves has had every advantage this election cycle, from the political makeup of this deeply red state to his fundraising acumen. But what was once seen as a slam dunk for Republicans has turned into Democrats' best shot at the governor's mansion in two decades. Mississippi Public Broadcasting's Will Stribling reports.

WILL STRIBLING, BYLINE: Here in Mississippi, two of the most important things to folks are church and football. Ole Miss is playing against Texas A&M, so I've been walking around. There are a whole lot of rebels for Tate Reeves signs and stickers around, definitely a lot of Republican voters out here today.

Well, first, just tell me your name, where you're from and what you do.

GEOFFREY YOSTE: I'm Geoffrey Yoste. I'm from Oxford, Miss., and I'm a business development consultant in the defense industry.

STRIBLING: He plans to vote for incumbent Governor Tate Reeves.

YOSTE: What meant the most to me is the leadership that he showed during the COVID pandemic. He didn't just completely lock us down.

STRIBLING: But even Yoste admits Reeves faces an unusually tough opponent in moderate populist Democrat Brandon Presley.

YOSTE: Brandon is likable, and he's a good guy. And so, you know, it's going to be a tough race for Tate. I think he'll win, but nobody dislikes Brandon Presley.

STRIBLING: Presley's political career began when he was elected mayor in his small northern Mississippi hometown at only 23 years old, the youngest ever elected in the state. Now a utility regulator, he needed name ID outside of his area. To get it, he's relying on a family connection to a certain Mississippi celebrity...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JAILHOUSE ROCK")

ELVIS PRESLEY: (Singing) The warden threw a party in the county jail.

STRIBLING: ...Elvis Presley, the king of rock 'n' roll.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRANDON PRESLEY: This is my cousin, Elvis. He had a song about making things shake, rattle and roll. I'm Brandon Presley, and that's the kind of governor I'll be.

STRIBLING: Presley said he wants to make the state's economy work better for people with lower incomes by eliminating the state's highest-in-the-nation grocery tax and cutting car tag fees in half.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

B PRESLEY: And as Elvis would say, thank you very much.

STRIBLING: Reeves, who got a last-minute endorsement from former President Trump, has tried to portray Presley as a puppet of liberal national Democrats.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TATE REEVES: They don't just want to change governors. They want to change Mississippi.

STRIBLING: But DJ James, a 61-year-old Holmes County resident who works three jobs, says that's not a bad thing.

D J JAMES: Tate Reeves is talking about Brandon Presley wants to change Mississippi. Mississippi needs a change. We need economic development. You understand? We need - you can't buy your medicine, pay for your doctor visit. Most people start out with $10 an hour. A family of four cannot survive off of $10 an hour.

STRIBLING: James lives in the Mississippi Delta, a historically and culturally significant region of the state but also one of the poorest areas in the country. It's a place candidates for statewide office often ignore on the campaign trail. Presley's made a point to visit multiple times.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

B PRESLEY: A lot of folks in the Delta feel left out, and I want to make sure that they understand that their vote for governor in this race will, in fact, not only count but make a difference in their life.

STRIBLING: Much of Presley's statewide tour is focused on criticizing Reeves' refusal to expand Medicaid.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

B PRESLEY: Now we're talking about 230,000 working people that would benefit from Medicaid expansion.

STRIBLING: For years, Reeves has been Mississippi's most prominent and fierce opponent of Medicaid expansion, which he refers to as welfare expansion.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REEVES: Adding 300,000 able-bodied adults to the welfare rolls is not the right thing to do.

STRIBLING: Demetrice Bedell, a lifelong Greenwood resident and Army veteran, says it's not welfare. It's survival. His city's hospital has long suffered financial woes. If it closes, Bedell says, it's going to cost people their lives.

DEMETRICE BEDELL: What about the people that don't have a car? What about people that - when they get shot? What about people when they have a heart attack or a stroke? That hospital is needed. If you got to take from Greenwood to go to Grenada, it's going to take you 45 minutes to an hour. That person is going to die halfway to Grenada.

STRIBLING: Jessica Taylor analyzes governors' races for the Cook Political Report.

JESSICA TAYLOR: Among Republicans, they worry that that has just been a very, very effective message - that Medicaid expansion has particular resonance in a state like Mississippi.

STRIBLING: Smelling blood in the water, the National Democratic Governors Association has pumped nearly $7 million into Presley's campaign. But even with such a strong showing from Presley, Taylor says it's still Reeves' race to lose.

TAYLOR: There's maybe a ceiling where Democrats can get in Mississippi. Getting over 50 is just a Herculean task.

STRIBLING: If neither candidate gets over 50%, the state would head to an unprecedented runoff election. For NPR News, I'm Will Stribling in Jackson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Will Stribling