There’s an axiom in elective politics that says, “if you see a snake, chop it’s head off.” But that may be a bit counter-intuitive for 2019 in Mississippi. In both major party primaries, how the presumptive nominees react to primary challengers will dictate what happens in November.
For Republicans, Tate Reeves is still a prohibitive favorite. He’s drawn challengers in the form of former MS Supreme Court Justice Bill Waller and a first time state representative from Desoto County, Robert Foster.
There are a couple of clear facts that are emerging.
First, Reeves is sitting on nearly $7 million in campaign funds. It’s unknown to what extent Waller and Foster will get traction financially, but it’s safe to say that he won’t be outspent in a primary.
Second, Reeves is facing challengers from his political left. Both Foster and Waller have both made campaign issues out of the possibility of expanding Medicaid in Mississippi. And Waller has expressed at least a willingness to keep an open mind about increasing gas tax revenues. Reeves is considerably opposed to both. But the early indications are that Reeves’ opponents are not even trying to make voters think they’re trying to flank him from the right. I’ll note that in the last 20 years, there’s not been a Republican party primary race of any significance where challengers scrambled to stay to the left.
As it stands now, Tate Reeves biggest opponent in the Republican primary is “not Tate Reeves.” And now there are two candidates splitting the “not Tate Reeves” place on the ballot. There is undeniably a faction of Mississippi Republicans, mostly congregated in special interests, that have issues with Reeves. Most of that is generally stylistic and not policy or philosophically driven.
Keep in mind that the discontent with Reeves exists largely “under the dome”. In 2015, he faced a tea party challenger and when given an option, Republicans still chose Reeves with 82.5% in a primary. In other words, recent history would indicate that there there’s not widely held voter discontent with Reeves. His challengers will clearly have to earn it.
Reeves challenge will be to win his primary without completely “burning the house down” and expending loads of cash and bad blood on his opponents. There’s no doubt that his opponents will attack him. At the end of the day, he’ll need to coalesce the entire Republican party assuming he gets through the primary for November. That will take some political discipline as Reeves historically has come from school of the “cut the head off the snake” of political opponents.
Like Reeves, Jim Hood remains the establishment favorite of his party. But he’ll have to exercise the same sort of restraint, but for different reasons.
Hood is facing several viable primary candidates; including Hinds County DA Robert Shuler Smith, former JSU executive Velesha Williams, former Natchez Mayor and former state legislator Philip West, and Jackson-based community organizer Albert Wilson, all of whom are African American.
Particularly with Shuler Smith, Hood’s temptation will be to completely try and dismantle Shuler Smith, due to the personal feud between them. But being seen as viciously attacking his black Jackson-based counterpart, could be problematic, given that 75% of Democratic primary voters don’t look like Hood does. The last two Democratic gubernatorial nominees were black and beat white opponents that were better financed and better organized. Hood has to run to win, but coming off like an angry rural white guy beating up on black opponents in a primary largely decided by black voters is going to be a delicate dance.
The odds of Hood making it out of a primary without a runoff seem questionable when factoring in the last two elections and the quality of his opponents. Hood will have to take his opponents seriously and spend real money in the primary. There will no doubt be polling done soon that will establish some baselines.
It’s estimated that the Mississippi governor’s race to succeed Phil Bryant could wind up with $15-20 million in political spend. That’s a lot of money.
Odds are that there will be intramural skirmishes. But the party nominee that doesn’t have to fire all of their bullets and turn their primary upside down to win in August will be the clear favorite in November.