- The Washington Times
Tuesday, August 20, 2019

By the time Mississippi’s voters pick their next governor on Nov. 5, Magnolia State residents could be forgiven for feeling some electoral deja vu.

Republican voters already will have been to the polls twice — once earlier this month, when they narrowed their field down to two candidates, and again next week when they hold a runoff to pick a nominee between Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and former state Chief Justice Bill Waller Jr.

Democrats have already settled on Jim Hood, the state’s attorney general, who, in a bizarre twist, is officially investigating Mr. Reeves.

Republicans expect to have the edge in this red state, but the party is taking nothing for granted, particularly against Mr. Hood, who’s been the top lawman for 16 years and who brings a folksy, moderate tone to the campaign.

“Mississippi is not as conservative, or not as traditionally conservative, as most people think, and Waller and Hood agree the main themes here are health care and education,” said Douglas Bristol, a history professor at the University of Southern Mississippi.

Tuesday marked another fundraising deadline for runoff candidates and Mr. Reeves remains flush with cash, reporting a bit more than $2 million on hand. That total overshadowed the cash available to Mr. Waller, whose campaign’s Tuesday filing had not been uploaded to the Secretary of State’s office website, but whose last filing, on July 30, appeared to show him with no cash on hand, compared to $900,000 for Mr. Hood as of his July filing.

None of those figures reflect outside spending on the race, which could be considerable, especially if the Democratic Party believes it has a shot at gaining another governor in the Deep South. The lone such figure now, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, who is running for reelection this November.

The candidates in Mississippi are competing to replace Gov. Phil Bryant, who is term-limited.

The governor has endorsed Mr. Reeves, though Mr. Waller did pick up an endorsement from state Rep. Robert Foster, a former competitor who ran an energetic campaign that garnered nearly 18% of the Republican primary vote.

Mr. Reeves is still the favorite to win, however, and the Democrat is already targeting him, even though the GOP runoff hasn’t happened.

“Voters increasingly support Jim Hood’s campaign to fix roads and bridges, improve schools, keep rural hospitals open, cut the grocery tax, and create good-paying jobs,” the Hood campaign said in a statement to The Washington Times. “Part of his challenge as governor will be to clean up eight years of failed leadership on the part of Tate Reeves, a candidate who has put his personal interests above those of working Mississippians.”

Mr. Reeves, 45, is still focused on wrapping up the GOP nomination.

“It’s imperative for us to point out the contrasts in this race,” said Parker Briden, the Reeves campaign’s spokesman. “Bill Waller is a very nice man who has aligned himself on policy with the Democrats.”

The charge is leveled against Mr. Waller, 67, because he favors a gas tax and an Obamacare expansion in Mississippi, both steps also favored by Mr. Hood, 57, and opposed by Mr. Reeves.

Mr. Waller’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

Mr. Reeves fits a conservative pattern more familiar with, say, the Bush dynasty, Mr. Bristol argued, and is less comfortable with populist conservatism.

“He is the GOP establishment, business friendly and a corporate conservative,” Mr. Bristol said. “Hood is the kind of guy who talks in ads about driving his four-wheel right up to his stand so he doesn’t have to walk to go hunting.”

Mr. Hood insists he can boost the state’s Medicaid rolls by some 300,000 with no new taxes by hitching the state to the Obamacare expansion, which Republican governors in Jackson have thus far resisted.

Democrats start off with one advantage in the state — 37.5% of residents are black, the highest percentage of any state in the country, and they are reliable backers of the Democratic Party.

But the state has still voted GOP for its governor for four straight elections.

“It will be very difficult for a Democratic candidate to win an ordinary Mississippi gubernatorial race,” said Troy Gibson, a political science professor at USM. “With no dramatic changes in demography, the question is whether the November election is extraordinary.”

Spicing up the race is Mr. Hood’s investigation into development of a road that connected Mr. Reeves’ hometown neighborhood in Flowood to the Dogwood Festival Market shopping center.

The attorney general’s office was due to release a report on the $200 million project this month, but Mr. Hood announced he had delayed it and that he would personally rewrite it.

Despite Republican protests that doing so smacks of political opportunism, Mr. Hood has vowed to release it before the November general election.

• James Varney can be reached at jvarney@washingtontimes.com.

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