All eyes on Mississippi elections as today’s party primaries whittle down candidates

Published 1:27 pm Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Mississippi’s four-term attorney general Jim Hood is seeking to defeat seven low-budget candidates in Tuesday’s Democratic primary for governor and break the grip Republicans have held on the office for 24 of the past 28 years.

Mississippi is one of only three states electing a governor this year. Louisiana and Kentucky are the others. Second-term Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves is endorsed by Republican Gov. Phil Bryant, who cannot seek a third term, and he’s raised millions more than any of his GOP rivals.

Voters are weighing whether the GOP should retain its lock on the governor’s office amid questions about the future economic direction of the conservative Southern state.

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At a polling place in Picayune, Kathy Burke, 66, said Reeves’ support of President Donald Trump was a key factor in her decision.

“I think Donald Trump’s done a remarkable job,” said Burke, a Republican. “I like the policies. I like what’s happening and Reeves seems to be a staunch supporter of him.”

Iris Jones, also voting in Picayune, said the most important issue was getting a Democrat elected. Although it is a state election, Trump and what she deemed his inadequate response to the weekend’s mass shootings were on her mind when she cast her vote.

“He never says anything that makes any sense and then, after he says it, when you ask him about it, he says, ‘I didn’t say that,'” said Jones, 59.

Reeves argues Mississippi government is on sound financial footing under GOP leadership. Hood faults Republicans for not expanding Medicaid to the working poor and says they’ve spent too little on schools and highways.

For most of the campaign, Reeves largely ignored his two Republican primary rivals: former Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice Bill Waller Jr., whose father was the state’s Democratic governor from 1972 to 1976, and first-term state Rep. Robert Foster. Instead Reeves criticized Hood, calling him too liberal for Mississippi.

“Our political enemy is the liberal policy ideas of the party of Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and Jim Hood,” Reeves said last week the Neshoba County Fair, a large annual gathering featuring days of stump speaking by politicians. Reeves also said state government is in good shape, and students are improving in academic performance.

Hood challenged that in his speech at the fair: “When they start talking about labels and not about issues, there’s something going on there, and it’s something that you need to look through.”

Hood says Mississippi has lost billions of federal dollars by being among the 14 states that have not expanded Medicaid, which is an option under the federal health overhaul that then-President Barack Obama signed in 2010.

Winning a primary requires a majority of the votes. If runoffs are needed, they will be Aug. 27.

Waller hopes to force Reeves into a runoff. His campaign slogan, “the conservative Republican who can win in November,” plays on the idea that Reeves has made enemies with a heavy-handed style of guiding state lawmaking as lieutenant governor. He suggests that Reeves could be vulnerable to Hood, who has a history of winning crossover votes in heavily Republican parts of the state.

In an interview Monday, Waller said he wants to raise teacher salaries that are among the lowest in the nation.

“We offer something other than the status quo,” Waller said Monday. “We have a platform. They call it pragmatic conservatism.”

Foster raised the least money on the Republican side. He received national attention last month after saying he would not let a female reporter ride with him in his truck to report on his campaign unless she were chaperoned by a male colleague.

Two of Hood’s rivals with strong ties in the vote-rich metro Jackson area are Robert Shuler Smith, who’s wrapping up his third term as district attorney in the state’s largest county, and Velesha P. Williams, a military veteran and retired administrator at Jackson State University.

Jones, the Picayune voter, believes a Democratic victory in reliably Republican Mississippi is possible “If we all come together.”

But she said Democrats and election officials haven’t done enough to publicize elections.

“Hardly anybody knew it was the day to vote,” she said.