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Friday 1 December 2023 Dublin: -2°C
Alamy Stock Photo An American flag flies at the 2016 Porthcawl Elvis Festival.

Larry Donnelly Could Elvis’s cousin, a Democrat, be Mississippi’s next governor?

Our columnist looks at Elvis’ cousin who’s running in Mississippi and could prove to be a dark horse.

IN THE UNITED STATES, Democrats and Republicans alike have historically maintained that they are “big tent” groupings. This was a general rule in American politics. Massive in both geographic and population terms, and diverse in every imaginable way, that the two parties were open to all and broadly tolerant of internal dissent was proffered as a plausible rationalisation for having only two.

While foreign observers have always looked on rather disbelievingly, most of my country people accept the status quo without too much interrogation. It is a fact that the proverbial political graveyards there are strewn with the remains of putative visionaries who thought they had invented the vehicle that would upend the mutually beneficial hegemony enjoyed by Republicans and Democrats.

In one sense, then, it is objectively odd that, as poll after poll demonstrates that clear majorities of the voters are somewhere in the middle on the most important and vexed topics facing the US, the two parties have drifted further to the extremes. In another, however, it is a perfectly logical consequence of the pernicious role played by the almighty dollar in campaigns and elections. There is scant cash in moderation or nuance.

Maintaining the norms

Students of American politics from within and without can poke holes in aspects of this analysis. Admittedly, it is somewhat simplistic. Of course, the Democrats are not actually on the left by European standards. In addition, the party my family has belonged to since emigrating from the west of Ireland has arguably moved rightward – or at least in a corporatist direction – on economic matters in recent years.

On the other side of the aisle, many of the positions articulated by Donald Trump and his MAGA disciples are antithetical to traditional principles of conservatism. Opposition to the use of military force unless as a very last resort, doubts as to the presumed advantages of free trade deals and a prevalent sentiment that the US is going down the wrong track were never elements of Ronald Reagan’s philosophy. Indeed, during the 1980s, these would have been articles of faith for many on the left.

With those qualifiers, it is nonetheless getting harder and harder to identify moderate leaders in either party. There is Phil Scott, the GOP governor of Vermont – home of Bernie Sanders and Ben & Jerry’s – who has been described as “pro-development and low tax,” yet also favours abortion rights, marijuana legalisation, gun control measures and policing reform. And there is Louisiana’s Democratic Governor, John Bel Edwards, who, while pro-life on abortion and a staunch defender of gun owners, has been a strong advocate for increasing access to health care, public education and equal pay for women.

On Capitol Hill, there is Joe Manchin, the Democrat progressives love to hate, even though they really shouldn’t. Manchin hails from West Virginia, where Trump is revered. Senator Manchin is the subject of regular, quite vitriolic criticism from liberals for his cultural conservatism and climate change scepticism.

But make no mistake. Whoever succeeds Manchin, whenever that happens, will never support a Democratic president’s nominee for the US Supreme Court. Manchin voted to confirm President Biden’s choice, Ketanji Brown Jackson, as the first Black woman Justice.

The Elvis effect?

In this milieu, it is interesting that Brandon Presley – yes, he is a distant relation of the legendary Elvis Presley – has a legitimate chance of being elected the first Democratic governor of Mississippi in two decades. This Presley has a compelling back story.

His father, a roofer, was murdered when young Brandon was an eight-year-old boy and he was raised by his mother, a factory worker and later a pre-school teacher. He had to work his way through a community college and Mississippi State University. Once very overweight, Presley managed to lose more than 200 pounds. He speaks with a deep Southern drawl.

He has represented the northern part of Mississippi since 2008 as a regulator of the public services provided for residents. Mississippians are among America’s poorest and have the shortest life expectancy. Avowedly on the side of the financially less well-off, determined to cut the exorbitant price of prescription drugs (among other government-driven health care reforms) and committed to combatting public corruption, Presley is ardently anti-abortion, “all in” on the 2nd Amendment and, according to a local journalist, “no wild-eyed liberal.”

In his own words to a largely African American church congregation, “I’m white and I’m country, and I can’t do anything about that…But what I can do is get up here today and send a signal from the governor’s office that we work for everybody.”

In truth, Presley is the best hope for Democrats in a state that last went blue in a presidential race in 1976 and where nearly 60% of voters are against abortion in all or almost all circumstances.

Tate Reeves, the incumbent Republican governor, was born into privilege and is proudly of the uncompromising right. Scandals have tarnished his reputation and he is seen as potentially vulnerable. Some surveys show a close contest between the two men.

Reeves has taken to the airwaves to assert that Presley would govern as a radical leftist and has sought to tie him to national Democratic figures who are widely loathed in Mississippi. The attacks do not seem to be resonating to the extent his advisers had anticipated – probably because it is difficult to paint Presley in this light, given his manifest centrist bearing and stances on hot button issues.

These viewpoints simultaneously give Presley the prospect of pulling off an upset and alienating many progressives in the US. They need to look in the mirror and ask themselves a couple of questions. Do we want a Mississippi governor who is with us a good deal of the time or none of the time? Do we want to be a 50 state, “big tent” party or one that may dominate on the coasts, yet will perpetually struggle to persuade the hearts and minds of citizens in that vast, amorphous and politically crucial entity commonly referred to as Middle America? The answers are obvious, to me, anyway.

Brandon Presley and down-to-earth, moderate populists of his ilk do not fit in at the trendy coffee shops and high-priced cocktail bars frequented by well-heeled Democrats in San Francisco and Manhattan. But these influential donors should be rooting for and contributing to the King of Rock and Roll’s cousin from now until Election Day, 7 November. If they do, they could even co-opt the alt-right’s Biden-dissing social media slogan: Let’s go, Brandon!          

Larry Donnelly is a Boston lawyer, a Law Lecturer at the University of Galway and a political columnist with 


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