Tate Reeves, staring down runoff, ditches early campaign strategy and attacks Bill Waller’s policy positions

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Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

Tate Reeves celebrates with his supporters during his election watch party at Table 100 in Flowood, Tuesday, August 6, 2019.

Sixty-four of Mississippi’s most politically connected individuals making up Tate Reeves’ finance committee received an email on March 13, two weeks after three Republicans and nine Democrats qualified to run for governor.

The fundraising email, sent by Brad Todd, a Washington-based political consultant who has run all five of Reeves’ statewide campaigns, sought to energize the top financial supporters by giving them a glimpse of the campaign’s 2019 strategy. Todd, in the email titled “The Field Is Set,” worked to convince the committee that Democratic front-runner Jim Hood could face a “costly runoff” after a crowded primary and that Reeves had little to worry about in his own primary.

But by the night of the Aug. 6 primary, it wasn’t Hood, as Todd suggested in March, who faced a runoff — it was Reeves, Todd’s client and heir apparent to the Governor’s Mansion.

Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

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.

Reeves, with Todd navigating from Washington, implemented a campaign strategy that political insiders have questioned this week after the front-runner fell just one percentage point shy of avoiding a runoff with Bill Waller Jr., the former chief justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court.

The heart of that strategy, which Todd detailed near the end of the email: “It is our plan to raise $5 million more — that’s what it will take to beat the Washington liberals who hate President Trump and love the local liberal, Jim Hood.”

“The most important news from qualifying is the fact that Attorney General Jim Hood drew EIGHT opponents in the Democratic primary,” Todd wrote in the March email, obtained by Mississippi Today and verified by Reeves finance committee members. “Hood of course is widely considered the Democratic favorite, but navigating a field of eight candidates could force him to a costly runoff.”

He then shifted the focus of the email to the Republican field, which included Waller and state Rep. Robert Foster, and downplayed the GOP opponents’ chances.

“Both our (Republican) opponents are serious candidates and good men and we look forward to a respectful campaign that will strengthen and sharpen our organization for the fall,” Todd wrote. “Having only two opponents is a fortunate draw for Lt. Gov. Reeves — the last time this seat was open, Governor Bryant faced four opponents, three of whom spent more than $500,000.”

Waller — “making his first foray in a Republican primary at the end of a long career in politics,” Todd wrote — forced the runoff with Reeves after being outspent by the Republican lieutenant governor 4-to-1. At the end of July, Reeves had spent more than $4 million in the primary, and Waller had spent just over $1 million.

Foster, who steadily gained steam in the weeks leading up to the primary, played no small role in forcing the runoff, garnering 18 percent of the Republican primary vote on Tuesday.

During the entirety of the primary campaign, Reeves spent virtually no time focusing his messaging on Waller, opting instead to focus on defeating Hood in November, pairing Hood with national liberals like Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer and Bernie Sanders and pushing red meat issues rather than policy ideas.

As Waller focused from Day One on his ideas for substantial public school teacher salary increases, “Medicaid reform” to capitalize on federal funds available to the state’s rural hospitals through the Affordable Care Act and a comprehensive infrastructure funding package, Reeves released ads about “outsider” attacks on the state’s new license plates, Antifa for their protests across the nation, and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for her “Green New Deal” plan.

“I choose not to look back, I look forward,” Reeves said Wednesday when asked if he regretted his early campaign strategy. He was later asked if he thought he underestimated Waller’s chances in the primary.

“We outperformed expectations (Tuesday) night. We got 49 percent of the vote. Over 175,000 people went to the polls to vote for us yesterday,” Reeves said. “I haven’t underestimated anybody or anything in this campaign. I know that we have to earn it, and we’re trying to earn the vote and support of every single Mississippian.”

Meanwhile, Hood is watching from the sidelines after handily winning his own primary on Tuesday to see if Reeves is forced to drop big cash just to make the general election.

Just hours after the reality of the runoff was made clear, Reeves significantly shifted his strategy from the refusal to acknowledge his primary opponents and the parameters that Todd laid out in his March letter.

Reeves held a news conference on Wednesday afternoon blasting Waller’s politics and policy suggestions, tossing aside the “respectful campaign” plan Todd divulged in March.

“He’s a good man, but he is not a conservative,” Reeves said of Waller on Wednesday. “He says that we need a progressive approach, much like what the Democrats say. We’ve got a real clear choice in this race. Are you for higher taxes, are you for Obamacare expansion? You want someone who will stand up and fight the liberals, or fold to what they want to do?”