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Why the GOP Frontrunner Might Lose the Mississippi Governor's Race

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves has been the frontrunner all year, but in Tuesday's primary, he fell just short of the majority needed to avoid a runoff.

Mississippi Lt Gov Tate Reeves
Mississippi Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves
(AP/Rogelio V. Solis)
Last Updated August 7, 2019 at 8:38 a.m. ET

Mississippi voters went to the polls Tuesday to pick the major party nominees for governor. They managed only to heighten the suspense.

As expected, state Attorney General Jim Hood was nominated on the Democratic side. Republicans, however, won’t settle on their nominee until the Aug. 27 runoff.

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves has been the favorite all year to succeed term-limited GOP Gov. Phil Bryant. He received 49 percent of the primary vote -- just short of the majority needed to avoid the runoff.

He now faces former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Bill Waller Jr., who took just a third of the vote Tuesday. Reeves has much of the Mississippi GOP machinery behind him and holds a 10-to-1 fundraising advantage over Waller. 

Bryant told Governing before polls closed on Tuesday that he was confident Reeves will ultimately succeed him.

“I think Tate’s going to do well in a runoff,” Bryant said. “I think when more people start paying attention to what Judge Waller’s saying, they are going to be more drawn to a conservative agenda.”

Still, some observers believe there’s potentially a big enough “anybody but Tate” vote to provide Waller with a win.

“It’s fairly normal that a lieutenant governor has to take positions on legislation for years and is unable to avoid taking controversial positions,” says Marty Wiseman, a retired Mississippi State political scientist and longtime observer of politics in the state. “He has been able to create a significant backlog of enemies while also making some friends.”


Clear Contrast on the Republican Side

Reeves anticipated a clear field on his way to the Republican nomination, amassing a $6 million warchest. He’s run as an unapologetic conservative, touting his record of cutting taxes dozens of times and adamantly opposing the expansion of Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act.

His ability to run on Mississippi’s improved economy and his record as lieutenant governor and state treasurer gives him a leg up, says GOP state Rep. Bill Kinkade.

“I’m pretty confident in him,” Kinkade says. “Inevitably, I think Tate will be our gubernatorial candidate.”

But Reeves, who has sometimes been described as aloof or arrogant, is not considered a natural retail politician. Although a Mason-Dixon poll last week showed that Reeves has near-universal name recognition among Republican voters (95 percent), a third of those who know his name feel they don’t know enough about him to have a strong opinion of him.

“I’m not attempting to smear the lieutenant governor, but what I hear from Republicans, whether it’s rank-and-file republicans or party insider types, is that he’s a hard person to really get to know or get to like,” says Nathan Shrader, a political scientist at Millsaps College.

Waller enjoys solid name recognition, not just from his time on the court but thanks to his namesake father having served as governor of the state back during the 1970s as a Democrat.

Waller has embraced a platform that’s quite contrary to Reeves’. While Reeves opposes an increase in the gas tax, Waller says one is necessary to pay for improvements in the state’s roads and bridges. Improving infrastructure is a top priority for voters in a state where nearly 500 bridges have been closed for safety reasons. Waller also favors giving teachers a bigger pay increase than Reeves supports. 

Perhaps their biggest contrast, though, is in the area of Medicaid expansion. While Reeves opposes the idea, Waller says the state needs to accept the increase in federal health dollars to prevent rural hospitals from closing. He would like to see a work requirement and would model his plan after Indiana’s, calling on patients and hospitals to pay the state’s share of the costs.

“Some say health care is doing fine,” Waller said at last week’s Neshoba County Fair, Mississippi’s top political gathering. “The facts are, we have 31 rural hospitals on the verge of closing.”

Meanwhile, state Rep. Robert Foster, the third candidate in the race, drew national attention last month when he refused to allow a female reporter from Mississippi Today to shadow him on a campaign trip for fear that spending time alone with a woman who is not his wife could “evoke suspicion.”

Foster positioned himself as the staunchest conservative in the race. But Foster supporters aren't guaranteed to switch their allegiance to Reeves -- even though the two are more ideologically aligned than Waller. That's because many Foster backers are temperamentally opposed to any politician associated with the party establishment.


Don’t Write Off the Democrat

Reeves has already aimed much of his fire at Hood, seeking to tie him to national Democrats like Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama and “their liberal policy ideas.”

Hood has been the rare Democrat who could win statewide office in Mississippi, having won four elections for state attorney general. For a time, he was the only Democrat holding statewide office anywhere in the Deep South.

“Jim Hood is not your typical Democrat that we’ve seen in the last few races, where you put your name on the ballot and hope and pray you have a shot,” Wiseman says.

Hood faced a half-dozen opponents in the Democratic primary, but prevailed easily, taking 69 percent of the vote.

Hood is running as an old-school Southern Democrat. As attorney general, he’s defending the state’s new "heartbeat" bill, which bans abortions as early as six weeks into pregnancy. He’s also a supporter of gun rights.

“As much as Republicans are trying to connect him with Nancy Pelosi and Washington Democrats, it doesn’t stick with him,” says Steven Rozman, a Tougaloo College political scientist.

Mississippi is a deeply red state, though. It hasn’t supported a Democrat for president since 1976, and Donald Trump carried the state by 18 points in 2016. Even recent Democrats who’ve done well, such as Mike Espy, last year’s U.S. Senate nominee, seem to bump into a ceiling of support below 50 percent.

Hood faces an additional hurdle. Mississippi has its own version of the Electoral College. The winning gubernatorial candidate not only has to accrue the most votes but win a majority of the state House districts -- a difficult feat given the concentration of the Democratic vote in a relatively limited number of counties. Otherwise, the election goes to the House, which is controlled by the GOP.

Winning the popular vote would be a struggle for any Democrat in Mississippi. Hood’s chances now might depend on the outcome of the Republican runoff. He had counted on drawing a clear contrast with Reeves in the fall. But if Waller ends up being his opponent, he’d have a harder time presenting himself as an alternative since he and Waller share similar positions on key issues.

“If I was looking at it as a Democratic campaigner, I would rather run against Reeves than I would against Waller,” Wiseman said. “I heard a lot of Republican folks says when Reeves was the only one running, ‘I’m going to vote Democrat for the first time in years and years.’ When Waller got in, they breathed a sigh of relief, that ‘now I can vote Republican and not vote for Tate Reeves.’”

Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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