A tale of two candidates: Mississippi governor’s race may be toughest in recent history

Published 10:16 pm Wednesday, August 28, 2019

The Mississippi governor’s race this year could be the toughest in nearly a generation, between two politicians who have already won statewide races and are known for digging in against opponents: two-term Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and four-term Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood.

Reeves secured the Republican nomination Tuesday by defeating Bill Waller Jr., a retired Mississippi Supreme Court justice and son of a former governor. Reeves and Waller advanced to a runoff from a three-person primary Aug. 6, the same day Hood defeated seven low-budget candidates for the Democratic nod.

Mississippi, Louisiana and Kentucky are the only states electing governors this year, and Mississippi has the only race without an incumbent. State law limits Republican Gov. Phil Bryant to two terms, and he endorsed Reeves months ago.

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The candidates offer sharply contrasting ideas. Reeves says Mississippi is thriving under GOP leadership, and he says tax cuts he pushed the past few years are making the state more competitive. Hood says Reeves is helping corporate cronies with tax cuts, and Mississippi’s economy suffers because young people are moving to other states.

Reeves, 45, has spent about $6 million so far this year. Hood, 57, has spent about $1.1 million.

Like many Republicans around the U.S., Reeves supports President Donald Trump and casts the race in national terms.

“I know Mississippi is a conservative state, and I know we will elect a conservative governor,” Reeves told his supporters after Tuesday’s runoff victory. “Mississippians believe the way to a better future is not through handouts or bailouts but through hard work and more freedom. And that’s the difference between me and Jim Hood.”

Hood is trying to become Mississippi’s first Democratic governor since 2003, when Ronnie Musgrove was unseated after a single term. Hood often cites the biblical instruction to care for “the least among us,” and he pushes back at Republicans who try to tie him to national Democratic figures.

Hood on Wednesday visited a low-income neighborhood in the capital and toured Jackson Medical Mall, a medical center for people of varying economic means. As he has for months, Hood said Mississippi should accept the billions of federal dollars that would come with expanding Medicaid to about 300,000 people often called the working poor — those with meager-paying jobs and no health insurance.

“These are working people. This isn’t welfare,” Hood said.

Then, switching to talk about Republicans, Hood added: “You know, they’re playing that card, claiming it’s welfare. This money never touches a poor person’s hands.”

Expanding Medicaid is an option under the health overhaul that then-President Barack Obama signed into law in 2010, but Mississippi is among the 14 states that haven’t done so.

Reeves has consistently said he opposes adding people to Medicaid.

The issue looms large over the governor’s race.

Jerry Peterson, 78, a Navy veteran, was at the Jackson Medical Mall where Hood showed up Wednesday. Peterson supports Medicaid expansion to help those facing large medical expenses. He described himself as a longtime Republican who no longer supports the party because of his disgust with Trump.

“He’s ruining our country, and I am now a Democrat. And I don’t take it lightly. He just embarrasses me every time he gets on TV,” Peterson said of Trump.

Then, speaking of the governor’s race, Peterson said: “Jim Hood is the Democratic candidate. I wish him well. I hope he wins. It would be a change for Mississippi.”

Some Mississippi voters are suspicious of Democrats and government spending.

Ruth Preston, 66, voted Tuesday in Picayune for Reeves. She decided Waller tended to support issues she identified with Democrats — she opposes expanding Medicaid and rejects increasing the state gasoline tax to help pay for highways. She said Waller has “inclinations” to “give away everything, and the working class has to pay for it all.”

A Republican Governors Association TV ad says Hood “is standing with the radical liberal resistance, suing to stop the Trump agenda.”

Democratic Governors Association director Noam Lee calls Reeves “a self-serving politician who enriches himself at the expense of Mississippi families.”

Two candidates who with low-budget campaigns will be on the Nov. 5 general election ballot for governor: the Constitution Party’s Bob Hickingbottom and independent David Singletary.

Mississippi’s last competitive governor’s race was 16 years ago, when Musgrove lost to Haley Barbour, a Washington lobbyist and former Republican National Committee chairman. Barbour spent millions on a campaign that depicted Mississippi as stagnant under Democrats. Barbour won a second term by defeating a trial lawyer.

Bryant easily won the governorship twice — first, by defeating a Democratic mayor who ran a polite and sparsely funded campaign; next, by defeating a truck driver who won the Democratic nomination despite having no campaign.