Former Chief Justice Waller to enter governor’s race, setting up cramped GOP primary

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Rogelio V. Solis, Associated Press

Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice Bill Waller, Jr.,  presiding over the state Supreme Court in Jackson, Miss.

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, long considered the heir apparent to the Republican Party’s nomination for governor, could have a formidable primary challenge on his hands.

Bill Waller Jr., former chief justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court and son of former Gov. Bill Waller, will run for governor this year as a Republican, the Clarion Ledger first reported Wednesday afternoon. Sources close to Waller later confirmed to Mississippi Today that he plans to run.

Speculation began that Waller would be a candidate for governor almost immediately after he announced in November that he would step down on Jan. 31 before his term ended from his position as head of the state’s highest court.

As early as 2011, Waller shared with a reporter during a luncheon at a downtown Jackson restaurant that he was contemplating a run for governor – as position his father was elected to in 1971 as a Democrat.

It has not been clear in the past whether Waller, if he did run, would pursue the governor’s mansion as a Republican, Democrat or independent. Members of the judiciary run in non partisan elections.

Waller, 66, did not publicly comment Wednesday on what sources close to him said was his pending announcement in the coming weeks for governor. The qualifying deadline is March 1.

“We’ve always expected multiple primary challengers — every open governors’ race has plenty,” Reeves campaign spokesman Parker Briden said in a statement. “Tate Reeves has held the line against raising taxes or expanding Obamacare and Mississippi voters overwhelmingly want that kind of strong leader as governor. That’s why he has an historic level of grassroots and financial support.”

With at least $7 million in campaign contributions, Reeves will almost certainly have the financial advantage against any candidate. But Waller, who retired after serving 21 years on the state’s high court, looks to capitalize on Reeves’ lack of popularity – based on polling – within certain circles.

“I think it changes the entire culture of the election for everyone by Justice Waller’s decision to run,” said Rep, Steve Holland, D-Plantersville.

Waller, according to people close his campaign, also plans to pitch his candidacy as the one that could best defeat Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood in the November general election. Hood, 56, considered a moderate Democrat, is popular statewide, based on polling, even among conservatives. He has said numerous times he has received whispered support from prominent Republicans in the state.

Reeves, 44, has been on statewide ballots since 2003 and has served as one of the state’s most prominent public figures since his election to lieutenant governor 2011. Waller, on the other hand, has only been on the ballot in the Central District of the state as a Supreme Court justice.

Fifty-five percent of respondents in a January Mason-Dixon poll said they didn’t recognize Waller’s name when stacked up with Hood and Reeves.

Still, Waller will rely on his years of public service.

Waller was first elected to the Supreme Court in 1996. Before then, he was in private law practice and served as a municipal judge for the city of Jackson.

At least one other Republican has also qualified to run for governor. Freshman state Rep. Robert Foster, R-Hernando, announced his candidacy in December. Foster’s campaign is also anchored in countering Reeves’ perceived unlikeability among some Republicans.

“I think choices are good for people,” said Foster after hearing of the pending Waller announcement. “Maybe we will have some good debates now.”

Foster, 35, said he looks forward to the Republican candidates debating the issues before the August party primary elections.