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Several former leaders of the Mississippi Republican Party are lining up behind Bill Waller Jr., underscoring lingering uncertainty among some party insiders of Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves’ chances to win the 2019 governor’s race.
Four former chairmen of the state’s Republican Party — one of whom supported Reeves’ gubernatorial bid earlier this year, and all of whom have publicly supported Reeves in previous elections — are supporting Waller in the August Republican primary.
The question the former party leaders raise: Does Reeves, who battles unpopularity among Mississippi voters and within some GOP circles, offer the best chance of beating Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood in November?
But before Reeves can tangle with Democrats, he must survive a surprisingly contested Republican primary that includes Waller, a recently retired state supreme court justice, and state Rep. Robert Foster, a relative neophyte who is using social media to build name recognition in the party.
“Waller has a much more even temperament to beat Jim Hood in November,” said Billy Powell, a Mississippi oilman and state Republican Party chairman from 1993 to 1996. “What bothers me about Tate is his arrogance. He doesn’t have the tendency to really want to work with people. It’s more of a ‘my way or highway’-type position. His arrogance really turns me off.”
Clarke Reed, a Greenville businessman considered one of the fathers of the modern Mississippi GOP who chaired the party from 1966 to 1976, said Reeves’ staunch opposition to raising taxes is wrongheaded in the midst of an infrastructure crisis.
Reed’s support for Waller is a reversal from his stance earlier this year, when the Reeves campaign in February announced Reed’s endorsement.
“Our infrastructure is crumbling. It’s a crime where we are,” Reed said. “We need a gas tax increase. Everybody knows it. I think Tate’s a conservative, but he doesn’t want to seem to pull the trigger at these critical times. He’s a good man, but gosh, you’ve got to have the courage to do the things that might be risky.”
Mike Retzer, another Delta businessman who served two stints as GOP chairman, from 1978 to 1982 and 1996 to 2001, said he also supports Waller over Reeves because of Reeves’ stance on infrastructure.
“Tate had an opportunity, a great opportunity to do some good for our state,” Retzer said. “Republicans are against taxes, but our roads and bridges are in trouble. Now we’re totally locked in, and taxes are always a sticking point with us, but I think leaders have to lead. Opting to be against everything is one thing, but I think there are issues he should look at more closely.”
Billy Mounger, a Jackson oilman and one of the Mississippi Republican Party’s architects, has also committed support.
“I’m backing Waller because I think he’s the best man, and at this stage I think he’s more electable than Tate,” Mounger said. “As of right now, I think he’d have the better chance.”
Waller, whose father served as a Democratic governor from 1971 to 1975, has said that family friend and former GOP chairman Jim Herring has also committed support. Herring did not return several messages this week.
“I think that shows that the senior, established, respected Republican leadership also recognizes that a new direction of leadership is needed,” Waller told The Clarion-Ledger last month.
To boost his message of electability, Waller hired two of the state’s prominent Republican political operatives: Josh Gregory, the political strategist who led Gov. Phil Bryant to two gubernatorial victories in 2011 and 2015, respectively, and Jordan Russell, a senior strategist for U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith’s 2018 special Senate election. Gregory and Russell are effectively running Waller’s campaign, coordinating campaign messaging and organizing outreach across the state.
Bryant, who is term-limited after this year, directly endorsed Reeves in late February.
“As a native Mississippian who has chosen to raise my family here, I want a governor who is focused not on petty politics, but on finding conservative solutions to the serious challenges Mississippi faces,” Russell told Mississippi Today on Monday. “I am very happy to be working for Chief Justice Waller.”
Gregory, who declined an interview for this story, and Russell crafted a campaign message for Waller that he is “the conservative who can win in November.”
The Waller campaign released a Facebook advertisement last week that states, “Shouldn’t you like your candidate for governor? Now you can.” And in several public events, Waller has focused on Reeves’ eight years of service as lieutenant governor, saying Reeves has “failed to address key issues.”
“Bill Waller Jr. is a conservative that people can like,” Waller said on a statewide radio show Monday. “I saw there were some big, big needs that weren’t addressed by other leaders in the gubernatorial process. After discussing with family and prayer, I felt that Mississippi was at a crossroads to move forward and address significant problems.”
Reeves, meanwhile, has not acknowledged a primary threat. When asked last week at his campaign kickoff event whether he was underestimating his primary opponents, he replied: “We are focused on the main thing, and the main thing in 2019 is keeping out the liberal ideas of the party of Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi and Jim Hood.”
“More than 300 conservative Mississippi leaders have endorsed Tate Reeves, including the governor,” said Parker Briden, communications director for the Reeves campaign. “That didn’t get covered by Mississippi Today because it showed the party is united not divided. Hundreds more conservatives turned out for rallies and events across the state last week. The Republican Party is going to nominate the proven conservative in this race, and that’s Tate Reeves.”
Among the long list of endorsements Reeves has racked up are three former state GOP chairmen: Brad White, who was chairman from 2008 to 2011, Arnie Hederman, who was chairman from 2011 to 2012, and Joe Nosef, who was chairman from 2012 to 2017. Former congressman Gregg Harper also endorsed Reeves.
“I am fully behind Tate Reeves as our next governor,” Bryant told Mississippi Today on Monday. “It is time for a new, younger generation of Republicans to take up the torch of conservatism. A young leader who doesn’t believe raising taxes and expanding Obamacare are good ideas. We will win this race.”