Reeves, Waller headed for a runoff after first ballot doesn’t settle GOP governor’s primary

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Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

Tate Reeves smiles as he speaks to his supporters during his election watch party at Table 100 in Flowood, Miss., Tuesday, August 6, 2019.

FLOWOOD — Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves didn’t mention Bill Waller Jr.’s name when he spoke to supporters around 11:30 on Tuesday night to acknowledge a runoff between the two Republican candidates for governor.

Waller, the former chief justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court, effectively kept the perceived front-runner from earning the more than 50 percent necessary to avoid an Aug. 27 runoff.

“Whether it’s tonight or in three weeks… I can tell you tonight that I am going to be the Republican nominee for governor. I can tell you tonight we are going to beat Jim Hood in November,” Reeves told the 50 or so supporters still in attendance at his watch party at Table 100 in Flowood.

Earlier in the night, as Waller’s supporters milled around the first floor of Capitol Towers in downtown Jackson, a dozen of his staffers had cast predictions about the night’s outcomes. Each had foreseen a runoff between the two candidates, with many betting only a few points would separate them. One even had Waller besting Reeves by a fraction of a percent.

But if the end-of-night’s outcome — with Reeves just over 48 percent and Waller at 34 — disappointed anyone, they didn’t show it. When Waller and his wife, Charlotte, walked through the door just after 11 p.m., the 60 remaining guests roared for the candidate, chanting “Go Bill, Go!” as the retired chief justice rounded the room, shaking hands.

At the podium, Waller played the jubilant underdog, “cautiously optimistic” that his campaign had achieved its original mission, making it to a runoff with Reeves.

“Our goal from the very start was to be in a runoff and it appears right now that 52 percent of the people who voted in this primary weren’t happy with the leadership that we have right now,” Waller told the room, referring to his voters and the 18 percent who voted for the third Republican gubernatorial candidate, Rep. Robert Foster, R-Hernando.

“We’ve been in the race five months. We were outspent five to one—four-and-a-half million dollars. You think about the opposition being in statewide office for 16 years, if you think about the name identification and everything, I think y’all did quite good.”

When Waller and Reeves face off in three weeks, Waller will need to hold on to almost all of his and Foster’s voters to best Reeves, something he said he thinks he can do. Waller said he had spoken to Foster not long before taking the podium Tuesday night, and he thought he’d be able to count on his former opponent’s support.

“We have a lot of issues in common, and I believe his supporters are going to be very very receptive to coming over to my side, and I’m certainly going to welcome them. But right now it’ll be premature until we have some official results and we have a chance to sit down and talk,” Waller said.

Unlike Reeves, both Waller and Foster support expanding Medicaid and have taken the lieutenant governor to task over what they say is Reeves’s failed vision for the state. On Tuesday night, Waller leaned into that, and while he didn’t mention Reeves by name, he called out what he saw as the state’s big problems.

Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

Political signage is in place before Bill Waller Jr. speaks during this watch party at Capitol Towers in Jackson, Miss., August 6, 2019.

“We need to start supporting our teachers instead of criticizing them. We need to pay our teachers instead of seeing them the welfare office. I think we need strong hospitals instead  of closed hospitals. Folks the roads are terrible, we’ve got to do better, is that right?” Waller said, with the crowd cheering after every sentence.

Reeves talked briefly Tuesday night about strategy — “as we get up tomorrow, our mission is not going to change.” 

But Reeves’ strategy will almost certainly have to change during the runoff against Waller as Reeves has largely ignored his primary challengers, instead focusing his campaign messaging nearly exclusively on defeating Attorney General Jim Hood, who won the Democratic Party’s nomination on Tuesday.

Reeves won more than 70 counties on Tuesday night and was the only candidate to win counties in every region of the state. But in several key Republican counties, Reeves proved vulnerable to defeat on Tuesday.

Waller defeated Reeves in Rankin County, Reeves’ home county and home to more Republican voters than any county in the state. Preliminary results showed Reeves lost his home precinct to Waller by about 20 points. 

Waller also handily won Madison County, home to the fifth most GOP voters of any county in the state, and Hinds County, home to the sixth most GOP voters of any county in the state.

Reeves, however, cleaned up on the Gulf Coast counties Harrison and Jackson – home to the third and fourth most, respectively, GOP voters in the state. 

Attention will turn to Foster, who received more than 60,000 votes on Tuesday, including a 10 point victory over Reeves in DeSoto County. Those 60,000 votes could propel either Reeves or Waller to victory in three weeks.