Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, left, and state Rep. Robert Foster prepare for the gubernatorial debate at WJTV studios in Jackson, Miss., Tuesday, July 23, 2019. Former state supreme court chief justice Bill Waller Jr. also participated in the debate.

The state of the state of Mississippi is — well, it depends on which Republican candidate for governor you ask.

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves said Tuesday during the only televised debate with all three GOP candidates before the Aug. 6 primary that he is running for governor because the state “is heading in the right direction” and he wants to help ensure Mississippi “reaches its full potential.”

During the hour-long debate held at the studios of WJTV in Jackson and carried live on television outlets throughout the state, former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Bill Waller Jr. said he sees the economic condition of the state differently – saying he is not satisfied with “the status quo.”

Waller told the television audience, “I believe the people of Mississippi deserve better.”

State Rep. Robert Foster, R-Hernando, speaks to media after participating in the gubernatorial debate at WJTV studios in Jackson, Miss., Tuesday, July 23, 2019.

Another candidate on the debate stage – state Rep. Robert Foster of DeSoto County – most pointedly addressed Reeves.

“I think it is important to understand the reason President (Donald) Trump ran for president was to try to help drain the swamp in Washington, and I believe…we have a swamp in Jackson and I believe the lieutenant governor and Jim Hood are part of that swap,” Foster said.

Attorney General Jim Hood has far outraised his opponents in the Democratic primary; political observers expect Hood, who has statewide name recognition, to win the Democratic nomination for governor.

For much of the summer, Reeves had focused more on Hood than on his two Republican opponents. But on Tuesday, he changed tactics and criticized his rivals. At one point, Reeves said that Waller’s “math did not add up” when Waller said he would work to move starting pay for teachers from under $36,000 annually to $40,000 during the 2020 legislative session, work to expand Medicaid and cut the personal income tax while raising the gasoline tax to pay for infrastructure.

Waller maintained there is money from a budget surplus to pay for the teacher pay raise and that hospitals would foot the bill to pay the state’s match to pull down federal funds to expand Medicaid to cover primarily the working poor.

Waller said Mississippi lagged the surrounding states in terms of economic growth. He said since the 2008 recession the state’s gross domestic product had grown by 2 percent compared to 22 percent for the nation.

Reeves maintained that unemployment is low and said at one point the state’s  economy is growing  “faster today than anytime in our state history.”

Foster, like Waller, disputed the strength of the state economy and reiterated his plan to eliminate the personal income tax and replace the revenue by increasing use taxes, such as the sales tax on retail items and gasoline taxes.

As he often has on the campaign trail this summer, Reeves invoked the name of the president who, based on polling, remains popular in Mississippi.

“President Trump drives the liberals mad. He drives them crazy because he stands up for what he believes in,” Reeves said. “He is willing to take the fight to liberals across the nation. We need a governor strong enough to take the fight to the liberals. I will do that.”

Foster defended statements he made on social media calling Democrats evil and ignorant. He said he was referring to defending the border and stopping abortion; he added that he stood by the statement.

When asked about ensuring his administration was diverse if elected, Foster said, “I don’t look at people’s skin color.” He defended his decision to refuse to be alone with a woman reporter on the campaign trail and said that policy would not hinder his ability to be governor. Waller said he had a similar policy.

Reeves, who is the lone Republican in the race who does not abide by the so-called Billy Graham rule, defended their rights to have such a policy on the grounds of religious freedom. Reeves said he also would put the best people in place if he were elected governor, but pointed out as lieutenant governor he had appointed African American committee chairmen.

Bill Waller, a former state supreme court chief justice, speaks to media after participating in the gubernatorial debate at WJTV studios in Jackson, Miss., Tuesday, July 23, 2019.

As chief justice on the Supreme Court, Waller said he hired both women and African Americans to key posts because they were qualified for the jobs. He said his experience on the court and as a brigadier general in the National Guard made him “uniquely qualified” to be governor.

Reeves did not rule out the possibility of expanding vouchers in Mississippi to pay for students to attend private schools. Foster and Waller said at this time they did not support expanding vouchers.

All three candidates said they opposed a voter initiative to legalize marijuana for medical purposes.

Both Waller and Foster spoke to the media after the debate, touting their performances. Reeves did not meet with the media.

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Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.