JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi Republican Gov. Tate Reeves and Democratic challenger Brandon Presley insulted and spoke over each other several times Wednesday night in their only debate of a rough-and-tumble campaign season, presenting sharply contrasting plans for the state.
The televised debate happened six days before the general election in a deeply conservative state where Republicans have held the governor’s office for the past 20 years.
Reeves said that Presley, a utility regulator, has taken questionable campaign contributions from “solar panel buddies … that have tried to run the oil business out of America.”
Presley said the contributions he received were legal but state government “is bought and sold to the highest bidder” under Reeves, with the governor demanding campaign money before meeting with people.
The debate was held before a small audience in the WAPT-TV studio in Jackson. It aired on the ABC affiliate in the Jackson area and statewide on Mississippi Public Broadcasting.
One flashpoint came in response to a videotaped question from a Jackson-area resident who asked whether the state should encourage two-parent homes by allowing people to retain welfare benefits for a few months after marriage.
Reeves said people should not be penalized for getting married.
“We need to encourage more moms and dads that are working to help with their children,” Reeves said. “And that’s certainly policies that I’m more than willing to look into and more than willing to try to get done so that we make it easier for people that have children to take care of those children.”
Presley said he was 8 years old when his own father was murdered, and he and his siblings were raised by a single mother who worked a factory job and sometimes struggled to pay bills. Presley said his mother “was somebody that Tate Reeves would say is a welfare person.”
“I’m not going to be cold-hearted to single parent families that sometimes find themselves in this situation,” Presley said. “I believe everybody I meet is a child of God, is somebody that Jesus went to the cross to die for. And I believe we should treat them with dignity and respect.”
Reeves responded that Presley was trying to speak on behalf of conservative Republicans.
“Brandon, you don’t speak for me and you don’t speak for Republicans,” Reeves said.
Reeves spoke frequently about Presley receiving campaign contributions from out-of-state donors. Presley said Reeves likes to talk about California and New York instead of small towns in Mississippi.
“Let me tell you this, governor: How ‘bout you talk about Caledonia and New Hebron?” Presley said, adding that Reeves doesn’t have the “guts and backbone” to clean up corruption in state government.
“You’ve been the chief cheerleader, with pompoms in your hand, for corruption,” Presley said.
Reeves responded: “I went to breakfast in Caledonia last Monday morning, and I’m going to tell you something, Brandon. You’re going to get more votes in California than you get in Caledonia.”
Presley repeated his frequent call for Medicaid expansion to people who work in lower-wage jobs that don’t provide health insurance, while Reeves said expansion could prompt some people to drop private insurance and join a government-funded program that pays lower rates to health care providers.
Medicaid expansion is an option under the health care overhaul that then-President Barack Obama signed into law in 2010. Mississippi is one of 10 states that have not taken the option. The non-expansion states have a Republican governor, a Republican-controlled legislature or — like Mississippi — both.
Reeves often refers to Medicaid as “welfare,” although he did not do so during the debate. Presley said some states that voted for former President Donald Trump have chosen to expand Medicaid.
Trump released a 30-second video on Tuesday, endorsing Reeves, and Reeves told Presley: “Donald Trump only supports the only conservative in this race.”
Presley said Reeves is at the center of Mississippi’s largest public corruption scandal. The state auditor has said tens of millions of welfare dollars were misspent on projects for wealthy and well-connected people, including a university volleyball facility pushed by retired NFL quarterback Brett Favre while Reeves was lieutenant governor.
“His brother was text messaging with Brett Favre about how to be a PR agent,” Presley said, referring to messages between Todd Reeves and Favre that the governor’s own campaign released this year.
The governor pointed at Presley and yelled: “Keep my family out of it.”
Reeves called for full elimination of the state income tax, while Presley called for reduction in Mississippi’s 7% tax on groceries, which is the highest in the nation.
Presley touted his endorsement from a teachers’ union, while Reeves said the national union leader advocated shutdowns for schools during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I guess he’s got a little bit of amnesia about all the shutdowns he did in the middle of COVID,” Presley said of Reeves.
Reeves served two terms as state treasurer and two as lieutenant governor before winning the governor’s race in 2019.
Presley is a second cousin of rock ’n’ roll icon Elvis Presley. He is a former Nettleton mayor and is in his fourth term as an elected member of the Mississippi Public Service Commission.
An independent candidate, Gwendolyn Gray, said she was leaving the governor’s race last month and endorsing Presley — but she did it after ballots were set. If neither Reeves nor Presley receives a majority in next Tuesday’s election, the race would go to a Nov. 28 runoff.