Polling poorly after one year, Tate Reeves may be looking at challenger in 2023

Published 6:43 am Wednesday, February 3, 2021

By Geoff Pender

MISSISSIPPI TODAY

A recent poll showing Gov. Tate Reeves underwater with voters at his one-year mark in office had something of a political blood-in-the-water effect, prompting much discussion among politicos in recent days of potential GOP primary challengers when 2023 rolls around.

Last month’s poll reported Reeves is “hemorrhaging support among voters at the close of his first year in office,” with 34% of Mississippi voters approving of his performance and nearly 50% disapproving. This shows a sea change — his net approval declined from +28 points in June 2020 to -15 in January 2021 — mostly driven by low marks for his handling of the pandemic.

Now in politics, the saying goes that a week is a lifetime. Two and a half years? That’s like a millennium. Pandemics end. Voter attitudes change. Challengers get cold feet. And at this point, talk is cheap. Challenging an incumbent, well-funded Republican governor in a primary is a heavy lift.

“If you go back and look at the history of all 50 states, you will find maybe one, two or three incumbent Republican governors who lost in their primary,” said Austin Barbour, a national and state GOP strategist. “A sitting governor is almost impossible to beat in a Republican primary. Whether someone thinks Tate Reeves is popular or unpopular — it’s a long time until election day, and history is on his side.”

Some of the GOP gubernatorial primary speculation is the result of the state Democratic Party not being much of a going concern in recent statewide election cycles. Serious internecine Republican challenges for top offices at this point appear more likely than serious general election ones.

Given that most prognosticators’ crystal balls are still cloudy on 2023, here are names most frequently mentioned as potential Republican GOP gubernatorial challengers:

Bill Waller Jr.

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Could there be a rematch between Reeves and Waller, a former state Supreme Court chief justice who lost to Reeves in a primary runoff in 2019? It’s possible. Waller ran strong in several, mostly urban areas last time, but he got shellacked mainly on the Coast and in rural areas, largely because of Reeves’ support from President Donald Trump’s voters. Trump may still be a factor in 2023, but likely far less a factor in statewide Mississippi races. Waller has decent name recognition, but he would face challenges raising money. And if he were going to make a serious run again, he’d have to get started working on it soon.

Robert Foster

With little campaign funding or name recognition, Foster in 2019 managed to tap into more right-wing dissatisfaction with the frontrunner GOP candidates and pulled a respectable 18% of the primary vote, serving as a spoiler that helped force Reeves into a runoff with Waller. Foster remains active in politics on social media and has been pointedly critical of Reeves’ handling of the pandemic and of his concessions on changing the state flag. Foster, when interviewed by Mississippi Today recently, wouldn’t rule out another run, adding, “I would be very surprised if Tate Reeves does not receive a strong primary challenge. Very surprised.”

Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann

Hosemann would be a formidable candidate, can raise campaign money and has nearly universal name recognition thanks to the “Dilbert … Filbert … Egbert” ads he ran during his long stint as secretary of state. But he’s in a powerful position now — arguably more powerful than the governor’s office. He was widely discussed as a possible gubernatorial candidate in 2019 and instead ran for lieutenant governor. At 73, if Hosemann has eyes on the Governor’s Mansion, 2023 would be his most likely shot.

House Speaker Philip Gunn

Longtime Speaker Gunn is frequently mentioned for statewide/higher office, and would be another formidable candidate in terms of fundraising and name ID. He already has close relationships with the state’s big money donors and has done well with fundraising, at least by House speaker measures. In the past, Gunn’s early and unwavering support for changing the state flag was seen as a major impediment for a Republican primary. But with a large majority of voters endorsing the new flag on the ballot in 2020, and that issue likely far in the rear view mirror by 2023 — or being as big a drag on Reeves and it would be him — Gunn appears more viable.

Attorney General Lynn Fitch

After serving a long hitch as state treasurer before being elected last cycle as attorney general, Fitch has built up name recognition. She’s long struggled with fundraising, but serving as an incumbent AG makes that task easier, and she’s shown an ability to put her incumbency in office to good public relations use for the state’s Republican base. With her name recognition and the bully pulpit the AG’s office provides, Fitch wouldn’t have to make a decision or move until later — say the end of 2022 — for a gubernatorial run.

Billionaire Thomas Duff

Businessman Thomas Duff, who’s listed by Forbes as the richest Mississippian along with his brother James, is frequently mentioned as a possible GOP gubernatorial candidate. Duff reportedly considered a run against Reeves in 2019, although he has been a big financial supporter of Reeves’ campaigns in the past. Duff could easily self-fund a serious campaign. Oddly, hosts of the nationally syndicated Walton and Johnson morning comedy and commentary radio show have been critical of Reeves and urged Duff to run for governor against him.

Secretary of State Michael Watson

Former longtime state Sen. Michael Watson’s name has been floated for years for higher offices, including governor. He’s in a fairly safe, high-profile spot as secretary of state and probably more likely to wait on such a move. Once an impediment to running for statewide office, being from the Coast and having strong support there has become more of a boon, particularly in a statewide GOP primary. If Watson could generate broad support on the Coast, he could pose a challenge for Reeves, who enjoyed large support there.

Auditor Shad White

White is considered a young, rising Republican star in Mississippi politics and is making a name for himself and headlines busting public servants with their hands in the till. He’s obviously ambitious and a likely candidate for higher offices. But at 35, he also has time to wait and build name recognition.

Other names are oft mentioned in any GOP higher office discussions in Mississippi: state Sen. Chris McDaniel, who’s made a couple of unsuccessful though high-profile runs at U.S. Senate; U.S. Rep. Trent Kelly of North Mississippi; wealthy and politically active businessman Gerard Gibert; and former U.S. Rep. Chip Pickering, who’s had a long hiatus from politics. These would all seem long shots for a GOP primary challenge that would in itself appear a long shot.

Mississippi Republican Party Chairman Frank Bordeaux said speculation about primary challenges this far out is common but often just that — speculation. He doesn’t at this point foresee any major GOP primary gubernatorial battle or downticket for other statewide offices for that matter.

Bordeaux, who was backed by Reeves to become MSGOP chairman, said the recent dismal polling of Reeves “doesn’t match what we’re seeing.”

“I don’t believe that Mississippians are that opposed to the current leadership in this state, from the governor on down,” Bordeaux said. “… I think the further we get out of the (COVID-19 pandemic), the better things are going to be in the state of Mississippi, compared to states that did not have our same policies … I’ve been traveling the state, meeting with grassroots groups in every large and small county, and I don’t hear complaints about the governor. I hear complaints about Washington, D.C.”

Again, challenging an incumbent governor — even one who sometimes struggles with favorability and has a penchant for making political enemies — is not for the faint of heart nor shallow of pocket.

“… And 2023 is a lifetime away in state politics,” Bordeaux said.

Published with permission by Mississippi Today.