Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, long considered the front-runner for the Republican nomination for governor, has begun acknowledging the notion of an Aug. 27 runoff for the first time in the 2019 race.
Reeves, who has largely ignored his primary opponents this year and focused his messaging on Democratic front-runner Jim Hood, faces state Rep. Robert Foster and former Supreme Court Justice Bill Waller Jr. in the Aug. 6 primary.
If no candidate earns more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two vote-getters will square off in a runoff election three weeks later.
“Look, there are three people in the Republican primary,” Reeves told WAPT reporter Ross Adams this week. “It’s hard to get to 50 when there are three people. That is our goal. We are working hard every single day to earn the support of every single Mississippian first on primary day, but then again in the general election in November.”
A runoff this year would be the first Republican runoff in a governor’s race since 1991, when political outsider Kirk Fordice forced a runoff with state Auditor Pete Johnson, who had been the perceived front-runner. Fordice went on to win the runoff with 61 percent of the vote.
In a June 29 interview with Mississippi Today, Reeves tamped down expectations by recounting the last two seriously contested GOP gubernatorial primaries: in 1999, when former congressman Mike Parker faced a tough challenge by former Lt. Gov. Eddie Briggs and four others, and in 2011, when then-Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant faced a tough challenge from Gulf Coast businessman Dave Dennis and three others.
“It’s almost as if some have forgotten that in the last two truly contested Republican primaries for governor, the heavy favorite in 1999, Mike Parker, got 51.5 percent,” Reeves said. “The person (Gov. Phil Bryant) whose support I’m honored to have, who served the last eight years as governor, he got 57 percent in the primary. We’ll see where this goes, but I don’t worry about it.”
An NBC News/SurveyMonkey poll released by Mississippi Today on Friday shows that Waller would slightly outperform Reeves in a general election against Hood.
Political observers believe controversy fanned by Foster in recent days could garner him support in the primary and potentially take votes from Reeves. Foster, who has consistently polled in the upper single digits to lower double digits this year, refused to allow Mississippi Today reporter Larrison Campbell to travel with his campaign without another man present, citing “the Billy Graham Rule.”
In the days after Foster’s decision garnered national headlines, Waller also said he abides by the rule popularized late evangelist Billy Graham that says a man cannot be alone with a woman he isn’t married to.
Two key moments remain in the 2019 governor’s race before the primary: The only televised debate between the three GOP candidates on July 23, and the Neshoba County Fair speeches on Aug. 1.
Both events will grant the candidates broad public attention, as the debate will be shown in TV markets across the state, and the fair will be closely covered by media around the state.