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Presley Leads Reeves For Governor Amid Mississippi Welfare Scandal, Poll Shows

Governor Tate Reeves and Northern District Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley in a side by side photo
With the Mississippi welfare scandal weighing on voters’ minds, Democrat Brandon Presley, right, holds a slight lead over incumbent Republican Gov. Tate Reeves, left, an SPLC Action Fund poll conducted between Jan. 21-25, 2023, found. The SPLC Action Fund’s Brandon Jones said in a Feb. 13, 2023, press statement that the poll “makes clear the upcoming election cycle will be very competitive in Mississippi.” AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

A large majority of Mississippi voters are familiar with the state’s welfare fraud scandal, and a slim majority is leaning toward voting for Democrat Brandon Presley for governor over incumbent Republican Gov. Tate Reeves in the November 2023 election, a new poll says.

Tulchin Research surveyed 500 likely voters on behalf of the SPLC Action Fund and an affiliated political action committee, New Southern Majority IE PAC, between Jan. 21-25. The survey contacted residents using landline phone calls, cell phone calls, emails and text messages.

Among the sample, 92% said they had heard about the welfare-fraud scandal involving top-ranking state officials and sports celebrities, with 55% saying they had heard “a lot” about it. When asked about their preference for governor, Presley led Reeves 47%-43%, with 10% saying they were “undecided.” Presley currently serves as the public service commissioner for Mississippi’s northern district.

“This polling makes clear the upcoming election cycle will be very competitive in Mississippi,” New Southern Majority IE PAC Director of Political Campaigns Brandon Jones said in a press release Monday. “We will be following this race and others across our Deep South states very closely and looking for opportunities to let voters know which candidates are looking out for the public’s interest.” Jones is a former Democratic member of the Mississippi House of Representatives.

The poll has a margin of error of +/- 4.38%, meaning the candidates could be statistically tied or the Democrat could lead by as much as 8 points. In 2019, Reeves defeated Democrat Jim Hood, who was the attorney general at the time, by a 52%-47% margin. Mississippi has not elected a Democratic governor since Ronnie Musgrove won in 1999.

Fired Attorney Accuses Reeves of ‘Cover-Up’

Tate Reeves was lieutenant governor between 2016 and 2019, when then-Mississippi Department of Human Services Director John Davis and others diverted more than $77 million in TANF funds away from the poor and toward well-connected individuals and their causes, including sports celebrities like Brett Favre.

Investigators have not accused Reeves or Favre of wrongdoing; Davis pleaded guilty in 2022. After news of the scandal broke shortly after his inauguration in early 2020, the governor returned campaign donations from indicted nonprofit operator Nancy New who has already pleaded guilty; Reeves had filmed a pro-public education campaign ad at her private school months earlier in October 2019.

Attorney Brad Pigott speaking at a podium
Gov. Tate Reeves said he fired Brad Pigott, pictured, in July 2022 because the attorney was “too focused on the political side” of the Mississippi welfare fraud scandal. File photo by Ashton Pittman

Since July 2022, Gov. Reeves has faced criticism for firing Brad Pigott, the attorney who formerly represented the State of Mississippi in a civil lawsuit seeking to recover millions in misspent TANF funds. In a Feb. 12 column at The Hill, Albert Hunt quoted Pigott saying that Reeves “has appointed himself commander-in-chief of the cover-up.”

At the Neshoba County Fair on July 28, 2022, Reeves told reporters that he was involved in the decision to fire Pigott, saying the attorney was “too focused on the political side” of the case. Still, since the attorney’s firing, the State has hired a full-service law firm that has continued to investigate the scandal and pursue efforts to claw back misspent funds.

In December, the Mississippi Free Press reported that Favre sought Reeves’ help obtaining state funds to complete a project at the University of Southern Mississippi after MDHS stopped using TANF money on the facility, but his text messages with Reeves did not mention using welfare dollars or indicate that Favre knew MDHS had used welfare dollars.

Investigators have not accused Favre of a crime. There is no evidence that Reeves ultimately helped Favre obtain more funds for the project.

Text message screenshot: [[Brett Favre]] to [[Gov. Tate Reeves]] >11:49 AM: >BF: He bud we set to talk today at 2 Todd said >TR: 👍🏼 > >2:01 PM: >BF: You free >TR: Yes sir >BF: Ok > >3:55 PM >BF: Failed to mention but there will be state programs using the facility like seminars,teen rallies,obesity campaigns etc.... >BF: Again thanks I know you have many requests > >2022-01-28, 7:15 AM >And name it after Govrnor Bryant
Following a public records request, the Mississippi Free Press obtained these January 2020 text messages between Brett Favre and Gov. Tate Reeves, which showed that the retired quarterback talked to Reeves about getting state funds for a volleyball stadium at his alma mater, the University of Southern Mississippi.
Last week, the retired quarterback filed a lawsuit against Mississippi State Auditor Shad White, accusing him of defamation for “egregiously false and defamatory statements accusing Favre of ‘steal[ing] taxpayer funds’ and knowingly misusing funds ‘designed to serve poor folks.’” In a Feb. 9 statement, the auditor’s office maintained that “[e]verything Auditor White has said about this case is true and is backed by years of audit work by the professionals at the Office of the State Auditor.”

In a court filing in the civil case on Feb. 10, Favre rejected allegations that he knew funds he pushed for in conversations with New and state officials to build a volleyball stadium at his alma mater came from welfare funds. But he claimed former Gov. Phil Bryant, Reeves’ successor who led the state from 2012 to 2020, did know where the funds came from. “The Governor was aware of the source of the funding and supported it,” Favre’s filing said.

Bryant has repeatedly denied that he knew about the misuse of welfare funds before mid-2019, when he passed a tip about possible misuse of public funds onto the state auditor’s office. Like Favre and Reeves, the former governor has not been accused of a crime.

‘On The Wrong Track’

When Presley announced his campaign on Jan. 12, he invoked the welfare scandal, calling Reeves “a man with zero conviction and maximum corruption” who “looks out for himself and his rich friends instead of the people who put him into office.”

The SPLC Action Fund poll found that 55% of voters believe Mississippi is “on the wrong track” and that most held an unfavorable view of Reeves by a 54%-42% margin, with 3% saying they did “not know.”

a photo of Brett Favre with Tate Reeves and Phil Bryant
Critics have raised questions about the roles of Brett Favre, Gov. Tate Reeves and former Gov. Phil Bryant in the Mississippi welfare fraud scandal, but investigators have not accused any of the three of a crime. File photo Gov. Tate Reeves/Twitter

In a later question during the same survey, the researchers described the welfare scandal to voters and noted that “Tate Reeves fired an attorney investigating the matter, which some people see as further efforts to cover it up.” They then asked voters again about their views on Reeves, and his unfavorable ratings rose to 64%, with just 25% favorable and 10% saying they did not know.In the SPLC Action Fund statement, Jones said that “Gov. Reeves is facing strong political headwinds in next year’s election.”

“The polling demonstrates that Mississippi’s voters believe the state is headed in the wrong direction and that they are laying a lot of the blame for that downturn at the governor’s feet,” he said.

Previously, a Mississippi Today/Siena College poll conducted between Jan. 3-Jan. 8 found that Reeves led Presley by 43%-39%. That poll had a margin of error of +/- 4.6%, meaning it could have been tied or Reeves could have led by as much as 9 points.

In an interview with Fox News’ Neil Cavuto yesterday, Reeves said he plans to “run every day like we are 10 or 15 or 20 points behind.”

“I look forward to talking to the people of Mississippi and explaining to them the record we have,” the governor said.

Along with the welfare scandal, access to health care and rural hospitals is already emerging as a prominent issue in the campaign for governor. Presley has accused Reeves of allowing rural hospitals to close by refusing to expand Medicaid, while Reeves attributes those struggles to population decline and urged lawmakers to “seek innovative free-market solutions” instead of Medicaid expansion.

Experts say Medicaid expansion could bring insurance to 100,000 to 300,000 Mississippians. That could help rural hospitals that are required to treat uninsured patients, but some experts caution that Medicaid expansion alone will not solve the state’s health-care crisis.

Legislature Less Competitive

While the election for governor may be competitive this year, control of the Legislature is not. Democrats only fielded candidates to run in 53 of the Mississippi House’s 122 districts, and in 21 of the Mississippi Senate’s 52 districts. Even if Democrats won all districts where they are running candidates, Republicans would still maintain control of both chambers.

Republicans and Democrats will not be the only candidates on the ballot in November, however. In a press release on Feb. 2, the Libertarian Policy Institute announced that it had recruited “the most candidates from a party other than Republican or Democrat in 100 years” in Mississippi. The party recruited 12 candidates for the House and five for the Senate before the qualifying deadline. The statement said the candidates will focus on three issues.

“Repealing the grocery tax, making it easier to bc open charter schools, and legalizing cannabis for adults are all policies that will make things better for all Mississippians,” Libertarian Policy Institute Executive Director Nicholas Sarwark said in the press release. “The people who stepped up to run know the importance of giving voters a chance to vote to remove these barriers to prosperity that establishment politicians have put in place.”

You can view our our timeline of events for the volleyball saga that tells the story through dozens of text messages, documents and images. Click here to see our #MSWelfareScandal archive dating back to February 2020.

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