Republican candidates for governor: From left, former Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice Bill Waller Jr., freshman Rep. Robert Foster, R-Hernando and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, long considered the frontrunner for the Republican nomination for governor this year, will skip the first gubernatorial debate of the year.

The April 2 debate, sponsored by the Mississippi State University College Republicans and Department of Political Science, will instead feature both of Reeves’ GOP primary opponents, Rep. Robert Foster and former Supreme Court Chief Justice Bill Waller Jr.

“Any debate around the legislative session was never going to work for the lieutenant governor given how much he has to do there,” said Parker Briden, spokesman for the Reeves campaign. “We’re looking forward to debating the issues in this race and we expect that we will get the chance to do that many times across the state. This one just didn’t work.”

The legislative session – where the lieutenant governor presides over the Senate – is scheduled to end April 7, with the day of the debate a scheduled working day for the Legislature. Legislative leaders said last week that they are trying to finish work about two weeks early, with the goal of leaving Jackson sometime during the last week of March.

Event organizers told the Starkville Daily News they did “everything in our power to schedule an event that he would be able to attend.”

“I am pleased to know Chief Justice Waller has decided to participate in a debate so the voters can make an educated decision on how to cast their vote at the ballot box,” Foster told Mississippi Today via text message. “At the same time, it should be concerning to the voters not to be afforded the same from all gubernatorial candidates running in the Republican primary.”

Reeves’ absence comes after GOP frontrunners ducked several debate invitations during a contentious 2018 midterm year, despite polls indicating that Mississippians wanted to see candidates debate. Incumbent Sen. Roger Wicker and appointed Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, the party frontrunners for both U.S. Senate seats up for grabs last year, declined several debate invitations.

Wicker, who faced Democrat David Baria in the general election, declined several debate requests from the Baria campaign and potential event sponsors. Baria coined the term “Roger Dodger,” which he used as a fundraising tool throughout the campaign.

Hyde-Smith, who was appointed by Gov. Phil Bryant in April and faced Democrat Mike Espy and Republican Chris McDaniel in a November special election, declined several debate invitations throughout the campaign. Hyde-Smith and Espy squared off prior to their runoff election in a single debate that was sponsored by Farm Bureau, an organization with friendly ties to Hyde-Smith.

After Hyde-Smith appeared to read from notes during much of the debate, Espy claimed that the debate rules were bent to favor Hyde-Smith. Hyde-Smith, meanwhile, pointed out that Espy had agreed to the same rules she had.

Reeves, Foster and Waller will square off in an Aug. 6 primary. The winner of the primary will face one of nine Democratic gubernatorial candidates in the November general election.

“I’m looking forward to being back at my alma mater, Mississippi State, and I appreciate the students stepping out and hosting this debate,” Waller said in a statement. “This will be a great opportunity for the candidates present to discuss important issues. We need to bring new ideas to tackle the challenges facing our state.”

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Adam Ganucheau, as Mississippi Today's editor-in-chief, oversees the newsroom and works with the editorial team to fulfill our mission of producing high-quality journalism in the public interest. Adam has covered politics and state government for Mississippi Today since February 2016. A native of Hazlehurst, Adam has worked as a staff reporter for, The Birmingham News and The Clarion-Ledger and his work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Adam earned his bachelor’s in journalism from the University of Mississippi.