BLUE MOUNTAIN — A local band was about halfway through the Chris Stapleton version of “Tennessee Whiskey” when Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves hopped out of a blacked-out, state-owned SUV assigned to his Mississippi Highway Patrol security detail and made his way toward the annual “Fire on the Mountain” festival.
Many of the 200 or so attendees of the festival stared at the platoon of campaign staffers trailing Reeves as he made his way past the stage and toward vendor booths around the perimeter of the park.
Reeves, who was on his third stop of a 13-hour campaign day around northeast Mississippi on June 29, is not known as a particularly masterful retail politician, but most at the festival received him warmly as he shook hands and greeted each with, “Hey, I’m Tate.”
Politicians running for governor attend dozens of festivals just like these in election year summers, and Reeves knows the circuit better than anyone. The Blue Mountain festival was one of three such events he attended that day.
The forecasted rain held off as an intense mugginess settled over the Blue Mountain Park around 5 p.m., in the Tippah County town of about 700. A festival organizer rode up to Reeves’ group on an ATV, pointed at the radar on his phone and jokingly thanked Reeves for ensuring that the rain held off.
“You know, I always get blamed for the bad stuff that happens, I might as well take credit for the good,” Reeves, 45, replied before letting out a laugh.
Reeves’ chief objective in his 2019 campaign for governor is convincing Mississippians that he’s done more good than bad for Mississippi, that the state after his eight years of leadership over the Senate is on the right track and he should be given at least four more years to build upon his body of work as Mississippi’s chief executive.
His strategy ahead of the August primary has been to focus on red meat conservative issues rather than policy, always keen to avoid talking about serious problems that still exist in the state as doing so could jeopardize his “good body of work” argument. When he does talk policy on the trail, he touts gains made during his eight years in office such as increasing test scores and employment rates rather than forward-looking solutions.
“I think it’s a pretty difficult argument to make that Mississippi isn’t in far better shape today than we were eight years ago, and I think that’s why you’re seeing people in places like these rally behind our campaign,” Reeves told Mississippi Today in an extensive interview about his campaign between stops. “Because unlike some of these candidates running seem to think, the voters are actually a lot smarter than they give them credit for. They know things are better off, and they know we’re headed in the right direction.”
But Reeves’ rosy outlook on the state isn’t shared by his Republican or Democratic gubernatorial opponents. In the case of his Republican primary challengers, Robert Foster and Bill Waller Jr., they’re working the trail hard talking about education, health care and infrastructure — all longstanding challenges in Mississippi. Their argument is that Reeves has done little in the past eight years to alleviate those problems.
“Where we are is he (Reeves) was satisfied with the money being spent on education, he said no to health care and he said no to any meaningful development of highways and infrastructure. My opinion is that’s not a good plan going forward,” Waller said on Mississippi Today’s political podcast, “The Other Side.”
The often unspoken reality of Reeves’ campaign is that the aforementioned “bad stuff” is his biggest liability, and his opponents in the governor’s race are working hard to ensure Mississippians know all about it.
There’s the fact that Reeves has often clashed publicly with prominent leaders within his own party. Several of his Republican colleagues in the Senate told reporters they refused to sign pledges of support when Reeves asked them in early 2019. When most of the GOP’s biggest agenda items died during the 2017 legislative session, Reeves blamed Republican leaders in the House of Representatives, including Speaker Philip Gunn.
There’s the fact that Reeves slipped $2 million for a private school voucher program in the eleventh hour of the 2019 legislative session, during his gubernatorial election year, after giving public educators a nominal pay raise that prompted members of the largest association of public school teachers in the state to mull a strike.
There’s the 2018 revelation of a $2 million frontage road that would connect Reeves’ gated suburban neighborhood to easier highway access. Though Reeves has strongly and repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, the executive director of the Mississippi Department of Transportation suggested that Reeves exerted political pressure to fund the now-tabled project. Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood, who’s also running for governor, is investigating the nature of the project.
For someone whose resume should make a Mississippi GOP primary a mere formality, these moves have led to a surprising amount of intraparty discord and doubt about Reeves’ electability against a Democrat who has always received broad voting support from conservatives.
Republican Party elders, former state government officials and conservative pundits have publicly critiqued Reeves’ personality, endorsed one of his primary opponents and questioned whether he’s popular enough to beat Hood in November.
Reeves is unapologetic, assured that none of it will cost him the Republican primary in August or the general election in November. As such, he is leaning on the political machine he’s worked to build for eight years and is sticking to the script he wrote years ago.
“There has definitely been a concerted effort by a few to build this narrative,” Reeves told Mississippi Today when asked about the criticism he’s faced (he declined to name specific individuals). “They’ve had some success building the narrative. But I’ll just tell you, we’ll determine how successful they’ve been on Election Day.”
Reeves continued: “I could spend a lot of time, going person by person of people who you’ve quoted, and tell you why they said what they said, but I’m not going to do that because I’m not going to get in a tit-for-tat. But I have taken the position over the last eight years that I was going to do what I believe to be right for the taxpayers every single day, and sometimes that meant I had to say no to people who weren’t used to getting told no.”
The summer humidity was getting to Reeves and several of his staffers at the Blue Mountain festival as he downed the last sip of the $1 sweet tea he bought from a fundraiser for the Falkner High School cheerleaders.
He found a trash can for the cup at the south end of the park and noticed a “Tate Reeves for Governor” yard sign nearby. He motioned to a reporter.
“You’ll notice a lot more of these in this neck of the woods than from any other candidate,” Reeves said, thumping his yard sign. “That’s what we like to see.”
The statement would be true of most places in Mississippi. In his race for governor this year, Reeves has built a colossal political machine that blankets the state — one that is unmatched by any of his opponents.
Though he officially launched his gubernatorial candidacy on Jan. 3 of this year, he’s strategically laid the foundation since he was elected lieutenant governor in 2011. As of the most recently available reports, filed in July, Reeves has $5.8 million of cash to spend. That is 10 times that of Waller, his closest Republican opponent, and four times as much as Hood, the leading Democratic fundraiser.
Ahead of the Aug. 6 primary, Reeves has purchased nearly $900,000 of airtime covering every television market in the state, ensuring his message finds its way into living rooms in Republican strongholds. His primary opponents, Waller and Foster, haven’t raised $900,000 in total combined campaign contributions.
The Reeves campaign opened field offices in Southaven, Gulfport, Tupelo, Hattiesburg and Jackson, and the campaign keeps a detailed map of more than 1,500 four-by-six-foot campaign signs scattered along highways across the state.
His campaign has 133 interns and 130 county co-chairs, managed by more than a dozen paid staffers. Some 1,100 Reeves volunteers have knocked on more than 50,000 doors across the state this year, the campaign said.
He’s received endorsements from 300 local Republican officials across the state, many of whom played important roles in President Donald Trump’s campaign. He has the stated and financial support of Gov. Phil Bryant and former Gov. Haley Barbour.
Last week he received key endorsements from the National Rifle Association and the American Conservative Union, the nation’s oldest conservative grassroots group.
If Reeves can’t attend an event, he sends surrogates on his behalf. With considerably smaller teams, his primary opponents Foster and Waller have been forced to personally travel to as many events as possible across the state, often missing out on key grip-and-grins with potential supporters.
“It’s really as if we’re not running a campaign, but that we’ve built an army,” Reeves told Mississippi Today. “We’ve built an army of folks who are carrying our message to their friends and neighbors and the people they go to church with every single day… There had better not have been a fair or festival the past few months that we didn’t have a presence at.”
Though these events are designed to provide candidates the opportunity to discuss kitchen table issues, Reeves rarely spends much time in these settings talking policy, instead nodding to social issue themes reflected in his television and social media ads.
Around reporters and Capitol types, Reeves, a chartered financial analyst by training and well-versed in the nuts and bolts of fiscal matters, eschews many of his favorite topics like cutting taxes and reducing the state’s reliance on one time money for recurring expenses.
But as he networks with voters on the campaign trail, he favors tossing red meat to the GOP primary electorate. Back in January, he kicked off his campaign denouncing the “liberal policies and the liberal ideas of the party of Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi and Jim Hood.”
He has since continued beating that drum, invoking the names of top Washington Democrats and “out of state liberals,” Antifa, Nike and Colin Kaepernick, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Bernie Sanders, former President Barack Obama and Eric Holder while boasting of his endorsement from the NRA and vowing to defend the state’s new license tag, which bears the state seal and “In God We Trust.”
While he touts achievements in lowering unemployment, raising elementary school students’ reading and math scores, funding infrastructure repairs and increasing revenue collections, he has been reluctant to offer solutions to Mississippi trailing neighboring states in employment, teacher pay, infrastructure maintenance and GDP growth.
Though he’s received criticism for the role of Legislature, where the lieutenant governor wields enormous power, in ignoring problems with infrastructure, education and the state’s healthcare system, Reeves has not offered specific proposals to address the 2,600 closed bridges around the state, the growing public school teacher shortage or the dire threat to more than half the state’s rural hospitals.
Foster, one of Reeves’ opponents in the primary, believes Reeves’ looking past the primary, including skipping an early debate, “is an insult to Mississippians” and that voters want to see an exchange of ideas from the Republican challengers.
“They want options, and they want to hear some debate and separation on where we are on issues. They want to see a vision, they want to see a plan, and you can’t really have that if you don’t acknowledge you’re having an election. That’s not good for helping our state move forward,” Foster said.
What began as hushed murmurs years ago in the Capitol hallways about Reeves’ my-way-or-the-highway leadership style has crescendoed this election year into a chorus of condemnation, often from the mouths of big names in the Republican Party.
Former Republican Party chairman Billy Powell was among five party elders in endorsing Waller in April, saying Reeves’ “arrogance turns me off.” Willis Lott, former president of Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, told a reporter in late June that Reeves is “arrogant and a lot of people know it.”
Conservative newspaper publisher Wyatt Emmerich wrote a column that appeared in papers statewide suggesting he would vote for Waller, writing of Reeves: “… it’s no wonder some people consider him a tad arrogant.” Ray Mosby, another newspaper publisher who writes a syndicated column, penned a column critical of Reeves with the headline: “When arrogance comes home to roost.”
Meanwhile, Waller and Foster, too, have tried to capitalize on Reeves’ strategy and his perceived likability problems. Early in the campaign, Waller ran a Facebook ad that read: “Shouldn’t you like your candidate for governor? Now you can.”
Despite his veneer of unflappability, Reeves knows as well as anyone these barbs have the potential to pierce armor. Relatively accessible to the news media in group settings, Reeves rarely invites reporters to sit down interviews. But talking with this reporter at AC’s Coffee in downtown New Albany, he anticipated the questions about the arrogance trope.
“I will tell you that in my life, I have no greater critic than the person that looks back at me in the mirror every single morning,” Reeves said when asked if the criticism wore on him. “If I can look at myself every morning and say, ‘Yesterday, I did everything I could to do what was right for people in Mississippi, to grow our state’s economy, to protect our values,’ what other people say doesn’t bother me at all.”
Reeves continued: “Could I have done nothing and taken no difficult positions over the past eight years? Sure. But I don’t think Mississippi would have improved nearly as much over the past eight years if I wasn’t willing to stand up and fight for what I believed in.”
In fact, without some degree of hubris, the Reeves machine would not exist.
That building process started when he first ran for statewide office at 28 years old, when he needed to assure voters he could manage the state’s multibillion dollar treasury. He knew he’d learn the ropes of the state treasurer job quickly, but as his opponents criticized his inexperience, he projected confidence.
He became the state’s youngest ever statewide elected official after defeating Gary Anderson, who had more than 15 years of state government experience as head of Department of Finance and Administration and deputy director of the Mississippi Development Authority, the state’s economic development agency.
Reeves served two terms as treasurer and made a name for himself decrying the state’s reliance on borrowing money.
When running for lieutenant governor eight years later, he faced political veteran and Senate Pro Tempore Billy Hewes. Many again highlighted Reeves’ youth and lack of legislative experience; Reeves remained self-confident.
“After 20 years in the Legislature and hundreds of votes for more spending and billions more in debt, it’s heartwarming to know that Hewes has now finally realized with 50 days to go in this campaign that we need to reduce our debt burden,” Reeves told the Associated Press during the 2011 primary campaign for lieutenant governor.
Today, in presiding over the Senate and breaking fundraising records, supporters and detractors agree Reeves remains cocksure as ever.
When the most recent campaign finance reports were released last week, Waller, his primary opponent, said: “I have never in my life seen somebody raise money like (Reeves).”
“The amount of money it takes to run for statewide office doesn’t just jump in the boat,” Reeves told Mississippi Today. “You have to work and actually be out there baiting the hook and trying to convince people to not only be for you, but to invest in you and your ideas and principles.”
Reeves, early that Saturday afternoon in late June, stepped off the stage after a short stump speech at the Tishomingo County GOP candidates’ forum in the Midway community and made his way around the crowded room.
In those interactions and others that day, he didn’t mention the primary, instead emphasizing the importance of the general election.
“Jim Hood won’t keep us on the right track,” Reeves told one older white man in Tishomingo County. “We’ve got to keep on keepin’ on and beat him in November.”
This is the script Reeves is sticking to: Pitch himself as the only serious Republican candidate and zone in on Hood, who is well-positioned to win the Democratic gubernatorial primary.
Waller, a Jackson resident who served 10 years as chief justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court, is well known in the Jackson metro, home to three of the top six counties where the most Republican voters live. Waller is a Baptist deacon and retired brigadier general in the Mississippi Army National Guard. His family roots are in north Mississippi, while his father, Bill Waller Sr., was governor from 1971 to 1975.
Foster is a first-term state representative from DeSoto County, home to the second most Republican voters of any county in the state. Foster, who has polled in third place all year, says he’s gained traction in recent days after denying Mississippi Today reporter Larrison Campbell access to his campaign because she is a woman. He’s seized national headlines, demanding respect for the “Christian values” he says prompted the decision, and says he has raised money and earned votes.
Political observers say Foster’s strategy following the national story last week could take votes from Reeves and help force a runoff between Reeves and Waller.
When asked to explain his strategy of looking past Waller and Foster, Reeves again displays almost militaristic message discipline and quickly pivots to Hood.
“I respect both of them (Waller and Foster), but we’re going to win the primary,” Reeves said. “We’re going to be carrying a conservative mantle in a general election, and that is very, very important. I’ll tell you, winning just one of these next two elections just isn’t good enough. And we think that we need to keep our eye on the prize, and the prize is beating Jim Hood in November.”
He continued: “There’s a huge difference in the liberal policies Jim Hood will support, and the conservative policies that I pledge to support. The people of Mississippi need to understand that. I understand that the attorney general has won four statewide elections. I respect that fact, that he is a formidable opponent and one that we have to take very, very seriously. And I have every intention of doing exactly that.”