Gov. Tate Reeves kicks off campaign where it’s mattered most: the Gulf Coast

Published 4:44 pm Saturday, May 20, 2023

GULFPORT — Republican Gov. Tate Reeves formally launched his reelection campaign Tuesday night just yards from the Gulf Coast shoreline, signifying the importance of the region to the state GOP and the political stranglehold the governor has on the area.

Reeves told a crowd of supporters and state lawmakers gathered at the Lynn Meadows Discovery Center that he wanted to hold his first campaign event in Gulfport because of how strongly the region supported him during his first gubernatorial campaign.

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“We’re here tonight because in 2019, y’all fought for us every single day of that campaign,” Reeves, flanked by campaign signs and cheering supporters, told the crowd of about 75. “In 2019, I promised that I would spend every day fighting for the Mississippi Gulf Coast as governor, and that’s exactly what I’ve done.”

The event setting chosen by Reeves, a metro Jackson native, underscores an important reality for the first-term governor: that the state’s “bottom six” counties of George, Hancock, Harrison, Jackson, Pearl River and Stone are his political firewall.

In 2019, facing a formidable Democratic challenger in former Attorney General Jim Hood, Reeves won by just 45,000 total votes. In the bottom six counties alone, Reeves bested Hood by 35,000 votes, leaving a needed margin of victory of just 10,000 votes in the state’s other 76 counties.

Facing two Republican primary opponents and another tough Democratic challenger later this year, the Gulf Coast wins of four years ago will almost certainly remain at top of mind for the Reeves camp.

“Four years ago, we learned early on the momentum that Tate was gaining down here,” Todd Reeves, Tate’s brother who spoke before Reeves took the stage, said at the Tuesday event. “As the results rolled in from the Coast on election night, it not only touched Tate and (First Lady) Elee (Reeves), but it meant a lot to our entire family.”

One reason the Gulf Coast has flocked to Reeves is the symbiotic relationship he has strategically cultivated with the area his entire political career.

During his two terms as lieutenant governor between 2012-2020, Reeves went out of his way to visit the Coast. Long eyeing an eventual run for the Governor’s Mansion, he hosted several town halls and press conferences over those years, typically focused on funding opportunities for the region.

Since he started his term as governor in January 2020, however, the governor doubled down on that focus, sprinkling the region with hundreds of millions in federal grants administered by state agencies that report to him. Though most of those funds must be designated for and spent on Coast-based projects, Reeves has never missed an opportunity to take full credit. In his three-and-a-half years as governor, he has held more than a dozen press conferences in at least eight “bottom six” towns to formally announce the projects before local TV cameras.

“The Coast’s success is Mississippi’s success, and this is another great victory,” Reeves said in a press release just this week announcing that he signed a bill that designates federal grant spending in several Coast towns and counties.

Aiding Reeves’ political prospects on the Gulf Coast this year is the fact that he has a several years head start in the region on his Democratic opponent, Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley. Presley, a northeast Mississippi native, enjoys minimal name ID on the Coast and will need to spend considerable time and money to build up a base of support here.

Politics aside, most of the people who attended the event told Mississippi Today they wanted a governor who plans to grow the state’s economy and wants to improve public K-12 education.

“If those things happen, it can encourage people outside of Mississippi to look at our state as an opportunity. And I think Tate Reeves has accomplished that,” said Gulfport businessman Dave Dennis, a 2011 candidate for governor.

Because of the area’s strong showing for Reeves, the governor has choked out any serious competition from the area and nearly locked down key supporters.

Secretary of State Michael Watson, a Republican from Jackson County, explored challenging Reeves in the GOP primary by using his hometown roots to chip away at the governor’s Coastal grip.

Instead, Watson bowed out and opted to run for reelection to secretary of state, virtually leaving the governor without any serious threat to the GOP nomination.

“We’re very proud of our governor,” said Mississippi GOP Chairman Frank Bordeaux, a longtime Gulf Coast resident. “We’re proud of the shape that our state’s in, and the Coast has sent a big message tonight that this is his place.”