‘It’s close’: Gov. Phil Bryant, a key endorsement for Tate Reeves, acknowledges Bill Waller’s appeal in GOP governor’s race

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Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

Gov. Phil Bryant

With a knack for retail politicking and a deep understanding of Mississippi’s Republican electorate, Gov. Phil Bryant navigated to the pinnacle of Mississippi politics, beginning in 1991 as a member of the state House of Representatives and ending this year as a two-term governor.

Drawing on that political experience in a Thursday interview for Mississippi Today’s political podcast “The Other Side,” Bryant handicapped the Aug. 6 Republican primary for governor and the eventual general election in November — a race that will determine his successor in the Governor’s Mansion.

Bryant has publicly endorsed Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, long considered the front-runner for the Republican nomination, and said in the interview that Reeves “has the same ideas and philosophies that I do” and that Reeves “has the ability to lead us in the right direction.”

But Bryant also conceded that former chief justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court Bill Waller’s likability could boost chances of a runoff in the Republican primary. Bryant didn’t venture to forecast how a Reeves-Waller runoff would end.

Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

A fairgoer holds a “Thanks Phil!” sign during the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Miss., Thursday, Aug. 1, 2019.

“People like to vote for people who are likable,” Bryant said. “Bill Waller is a very likable guy. His dad was a good governor, a Democrat governor, so people like Bill Waller. His family are just wonderful people, a very old Mississippi family that many people know and like. I like them all. The judge and I just disagree on policy. It doesn’t mean we’re mad at each other, we just disagree on how to move Mississippi forward.”

Bryant continued: “It’s hard to predict, but it’s close. Tate was up 10 points in that Mason Dixon poll. I think this is the same company that said Hillary Clinton was up 10 or so on Donald Trump in Mississippi. Polling is polling. So we will see what happens. I think a lot of people from the beginning thought it could be a runoff.”

Perceived likability has been a major theme of the 2019 Republican primary. Insider political figures, former government officials and newspaper columnists have questioned Reeves’ likability, some going as far as calling him “arrogant.”

Rankin County ‘kingmaker’: Hometown boy Tate Reeves not a sure thing in runoff with Bill Waller

Public polls show Reeves as one of the least popular statewide elected officials in Mississippi, while the same polls show glowing favorability numbers for Bryant.

Reeves’ opponents, Waller and first term state Rep. Robert Foster, have worked to capitalize on that notion. They’ve also highlighted disparities in public education, health care and infrastructure that they say Reeves has not addressed in his eight years as lieutenant governor — and as Bryant was governor during that same stretch.

“I think they’re making a mistake,” Bryant said when asked about the strategy of Waller and Foster. “They’re probably listening to a political consultant that says, ‘If you say good things are happening, Tate Reeves is going to say thank you very much because he was actually part of it.’ So they find themselves in a difficult position of sounding like Democrats.”

Bryant continued: “If you listen to Jim Hood — and I’m not mad at anybody — but as a political observer, you listen to Jim Hood, Judge Waller, Robert Foster, much of the same things: expansion of Medicaid, raising the gasoline tax. Those are things that Tate Reeves and I are not for.”

Still, Bryant said this of his endorsement of Reeves: “I can help endorse, I can help verbalize why I do that, but the candidates win and lose this. I can’t help or guarantee a victory, I can just help out with my support.”

Tate Reeves, less than three weeks before GOP primary for governor, floats possibility of a runoff for the first time

When asked if he thought a GOP runoff was imminent, Bryant suggested a movement of change could benefit Waller.

“Look, Bill Waller is a hard working guy. He’s a very good candidate, he’s working hard here (at the Neshoba County Fair) today. That’s the political nature of Mississippi,” Bryant said. “The other thing that people forget from time to time: I think back to when Churchill was turned out after winning the second World War and his party was turned out of power. Sometimes people say, ‘It’s time for a change. I think we’ll try something different.'”

Bryant continued: “When that collective mindset happens, it’s a dangerous thing in politics. Look at George H.W. Bush. Here’s a man that was on top of popularity, did a good job as president, and got beat by the governor of Arkansas (Bill Clinton). So if that movement of ‘for a change’ gets energy and gets legs, yeah, it could be beneficial for Bill Waller and could bring us into a runoff.”

The complete interview with Gov. Phil Bryant can be heard on “The Other Side,” Mississippi Today’s political podcast.