In 2003, incumbent Democratic Gov. Ronnie Musgrove flew into Tupelo to campaign in the final days before the November general election.
Among those meeting Musgrove at the Tupelo Municipal Airport was 26-year-old Brandon Presley, the mayor of nearby Nettleton.
Presley was there to host Musgrove as he campaigned in the area. At the airport, a Musgrove staffer asked a reporter traveling with the governor to report on the campaign if he would mind riding in the car with Presley because a New York Times reporter wanted some alone time with Musgrove.
The reporter, who had been traveling with Musgrove daily during the final days of the campaign, did not object to the request. On the ride from the airport to the first stop — a Nettleton furniture plant — Presley entertained the reporter and others in the car, mimicking first the high-pitched Southern drawl of Musgrove followed by the deep Southern drawl of Haley Barbour, the 2003 Republican nominee for governor.
Later, leaving the furniture plant for the next destination, a Musgrove campaign staffer said the New York Times reporter was finished with his interview and the Mississippi reporter could ride with Musgrove to the next destination.
“That’s all right. I will ride with Brandon,” the reporter replied.
Besides his comedy routine, Presley also provided political commentary that October day. He said the 2003 governor’s election would be a watershed event. If Barbour, a Yazoo City native who had made his name as a Washington lobbyist and national political operative, won the election, Presley surmised, it would usher in a period of dark days for Mississippi Democrats.
Presley predicted that if Musgrove lost that election, it would be many years before a Democrat would win a Mississippi governor’s race. Presley said Democrats could not lose the rural white vote in areas like where he lived in northeast Mississippi and still win statewide.
The 26-year-old mayor proved that day to be both a good comedian and a keen political observer.
Musgrove lost the 2003 election in what was until 2023 the most expensive in state history. That 2003 election still is a high watermark for turnout in a Mississippi’s governor’s election.
Since then, a Democrat has not resided in the Governor’s Mansion. In 2003 as Presley made his observation, so-called rural white Democrats from northeast Mississippi dominated the Legislature, but they began to slowly be replaced by Republicans taking advantage of the modern, sophisticated campaign strategy Barbour brought back from D.C. to his native Mississippi.
Today, Sen. Hob Bryan of Amory, whose district includes Presley’s hometown of Nettleton, is the only rural white Democrat left in northeast Mississippi. Bryan won reelection on Nov. 7 and remains the only Democrat in the Legislature representing a white majority district.
It would have been ironic if Brandon Presley, a four-term public service commissioner from northeast Mississippi, would have been the first Democrat to win the office of governor since he made his foretelling observation during that watershed 2003 campaign. As it turned out, Presley, like another northeast Mississippi native, former state Attorney General Jim Hood, fell short in their quest to become the first Democratic governor elected since 1999. And just like Musgrove way back in 2003, both Hood in 2019 and Presley this year lost by about 5 percentage points.
And also like Musgrove in 2003 and Hood in 2019, Presley lost northeast Mississippi, where Musgrove was campaigning on that bright, cloudless October day.
In his 1999 victory, Musgrove won northeast Mississippi — once known as home of the so-called Roosevelt Democrats who believed government had a role to play in lifting up communities economically. At one time, a Democrat could capture statewide office by winning in northeast Mississippi and in the majority-Black areas of the state.
But Democrats can no longer piece together such a winning alliance. That coalition, as it turns out, was slipping away in 2003 when Musgrove and Presley traveled through Tupelo and down state Highway 6 to Nettleton.
Don’t be surprised if Presley tries again to end that 2003 self-fulfilling prophecy.
“I am not walking off the political stage,” he said this week, not ruling out another run for governor in 2027.
But at least for the next four years, his 2003 prediction remains true for Mississippi Democrats.
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