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Will Mississippi Have a Real Governor's Race?

There are signs that Gov. Tate Reeves' reelection is in trouble, but he has an outstanding track record. Meanwhile, turning New Jersey red and a failure to comply.

Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves
Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves (TNS)
Editor's Note: this article is a part of Governing's Inside Politics newsletter. Sign up here.

Will Mississippi Have a Real Governor's Race?: There are signs that Tate Reeves is in trouble. Seeking a second term, Mississippi’s Republican governor has consistently polled under 50 percent this year, which is not where an incumbent wants to be. One poll back in January showed him with only a four-point lead over Brandon Presley, his Democratic opponent. (Reeves and Presley will officially win their respective nominations in primaries coming up on Aug. 8.) A poll released last month showed Reeves with a healthier lead, but still found that 1 in 5 Republicans are considering casting their votes for Presley.

Reeves is running for re-election in the shadow of a major corruption scandal. More than $75 million worth of welfare money was diverted to unrelated pet projects, including $5 million for a college volleyball arena promoted by former NFL quarterback Brett Favre. Democrats also complain about Reeves’ lack of support for expanding Medicaid, saying it’s put more than a third of the state’s rural hospitals at risk of closure. “Those Republicans who are sitting on the fence with respect to how Tate Reeves has governed the state of Mississippi, they have to make a decision,” says Democratic state Rep. Chris Bell. “They’re hurting just as much as a Democrat in the state of Mississippi is hurting.”

Brandon Presley, cousin of Elvis and Democratic candidate for governor of Mississippi
Brandon Presley, cousin of Elvis and Democratic candidate for governor of Mississippi. (Facebook)
The dubious welfare spending took place before Reeves became governor, however, and there’s been nothing tying him to criminal behavior (although Democrats are quick to point out that he hasn’t returned contributions from those charged). There are other parts of his record that Reeves is more than happy to run on. Last year, lawmakers passed the state’s largest income tax cut ever. For the last three months in a row, Mississippi has broken its own record in terms of low unemployment rates. Reeves has not only increased teacher pay but overseen a “Mississippi miracle” in education, with test scores leaping up after decades of dragging near the bottom among states. Reeves has been on the right side of the culture war for most Mississippi voters, signing a ban on transgender medical care for minors earlier this year. It was abortion restrictions in Mississippi that led to the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade last year.

Donald Trump carried Mississippi by at least 16 points in both his presidential campaigns. Democrats haven’t won a Mississippi governors race in this century. “Reeves is not necessarily so popular, but the Republican Party is,” says Steven Rozman, a retired political scientist at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Miss. “It’s difficult for a Democrat to win in this state in a statewide election.”

Democrats continue to hope Presley can take advantage of Reeves’ vulnerabilities. But then, they hoped Jim Hood, who’d run successfully for state attorney general four times, would cause Reeves trouble four years ago. Reeves ended up winning by five percentage points. This year, it might not end up being that close. “This is a classic right-track environment,” says Brad Todd, a consultant to the Reeves campaign, “with a candidate who has never lost a political campaign and has the strongest fundraising track record of any elected official in state history.”
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (TNS)
Turning New Jersey Red: If Democrats are nursing hopes of flipping a red-state governor’s mansion, Republicans believe they can continue to make inroads in New Jersey, one of the nation’s bluest states. In 2021, Gov. Phil Murphy barely won re-election, taking just 51 percent only a year after Joe Biden carried the state by 16 percentage points. Republicans took over six seats in the state Assembly, while also scoring a net gain in the state Senate for the first time since 1991 – thanks to the defeat of Steve Sweeney, the longtime Senate president.

George Norcross, the South Jersey Democrat who for decades ran one of the nation’s last old-style political machines, moved to Florida and said earlier this year that he’s stepping away from politics altogether, following the party’s “catastrophic” blows in 2021.

Republicans think they can further erode Democratic strength in November’s legislative elections. The Democrats’ overall edge in registration remains formidable but has dropped below 1 million voters, thanks in part to an improved GOP ground game. Recent polling from the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC) shows generic Republican candidates ahead or tied in several competitive districts. “Not only is Joe Biden unpopular in New Jersey, he is wildly unpopular in the legislative districts most likely to be competitive in 2023,” according to an RSLC memo.

There are New Jersey Democrats who are worried that Biden and issues such as inflation could act as a drag on their chances, says Matthew Hale, a political scientist at Seton Hall University.

If Republicans do well, it would feed into the national narrative that Biden’s not just unpopular but in real trouble, he suggests.

But Hale emphasizes his belief that this is unlikely to happen. New Jersey’s latest round of redistricting led to a number of incumbents having to run against each other in primaries last month, but most districts remain solidly Republican or – more often – Democratic. “At the end of the day, I don’t think there’s going to be that much significant change in representation from Democrat to Republican,” Hale says.

Failure to Comply: If you’re reading this far into a political newsletter, you already know that the Supreme Court last month rejected Alabama’s congressional map, in effect ordering the state to create a second Black-majority district to comply with the Voting Rights Act. “Regardless of our disagreement with the court’s decision, we are confident the Alabama Legislature will redraw district lines that ensure the people of Alabama are represented by members who share their beliefs,” John Wahl, who chairs the Alabama Republican Party, said in a statement in response.

Well, maybe not. This week, committees in both the state House and Senate approved maps that failed to create a second Black-majority district, instead creating districts that favored Trump in the 2020 election. Alabama legislators appear set on a course of daring the same district court that rejected their original map to do so again, no matter what the Supreme Court just said. Louisiana lawmakers seem intent on doing something similar. All this could have implications for pending cases in Georgia, Mississippi and Texas.

The Supreme Court’s decision didn’t change the law. Rather, it upheld the status quo. Civil rights advocates hoped that meant what remains of the Voting Rights Act would be enforced. Instead, it means that some states will continue testing the limits of court enforcement.

Odds and Ends: Things aren’t going so great for the slew of Republican governors running for president. Florida’s Ron DeSantis continues to slide in the polls, while little-known Doug Burgum of North Dakota has gotten off to a tentative start. On Monday, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp reiterated that he’s “certainly not” running for president, warning that if Trump continues to complain that the 2020 election was stolen from him, he’ll lose Georgia again next year …

Remember the Justins? Democrats Justin Pearson and Justin Jones were expelled from the Tennessee House back in April for their part in a gun-control demonstration. It’s turned out to be a great career move. Both representatives were quickly restored to their posts by their local parties. What’s more, in the past three months, they’ve raised more than $2 million combined. That’s a lot of money for state House members, particularly those occupying safe seats. More proof that much of politics these days is about making the right enemies …

Last November, Michigan voters passed a ballot measure designed to make voting easier in various ways, including expanded early and absentee voting. On Tuesday, Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed a package of bills codifying those changes. “Today, I am proud to sign bipartisan legislation implementing the will of the people, ensuring they can make their voices heard in every election,” Whitmer said …

On Tuesday, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, a Democrat, charged 16 Republicans with forgery and conspiracy for having presented themselves as fake Trump electors in 2020, including a former Michigan GOP co-chair. The Michigan Republican Party has already had problems raising money, with major donors put off by the incessant election fraud drumbeat.

A fight broke out during a recent meeting of the Michigan GOP’s central committee. A similar dynamic, absent the kicking and punching, is playing out in Arizona, where the state GOP has spent heavily on election-fraud-related legal fees.

The never-ending arguments about 2020 aside, this raises the question of what parties are for – organizations primarily concerned with winning elections, or acting as ideological vehicles for their members. That question will never be fully resolved, says Thad Kousser, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego. Instead, party goals and tactics and members’ sense of their primary mission will continually change over time as ideologues and pragmatists compete for dominance.

“Parties are, most of all, groups of humans,” Kousser says. “Like any group of humans, they do not all think alike, either in their broad ideology or their narrow political tactics.”

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Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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