Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves missed capturing a majority and avoiding a runoff against former state Supreme Court Chief Justice William Waller Jr. by about 8,100 votes.

Maybe Republican Tate Reeves was not thinking about being governor in 2003 when at age 29 he won election to be the youngest treasurer in Mississippi history.

But it was clear soon after that election that the young financial analyst was ambitious. Whether he was loudly touting his fiscal conservatism or taking on powerful Democratic Speaker Billy McCoy in a public verbal sparring match during a meeting of legislative leaders with state agency heads, it became apparent that J. Tate Reeves was no shrinking violet.

His political ambitions though were specific – to be the chief executive officer of the state of Mississippi. While it has officially never been confirmed, it is widely believed that Reeves could have received the appointment from Gov. Phil Bryant to the coveted U.S. Senate seat left vacant last year by the resignation of Thad Cochran.

Almost any politician would jump at the opportunity to be in the U.S. Senate.

Bobby Harrison

But Reeves wanted to be one of 50 state chief executive officers – not one of 100 policymakers in the nation’s Capitol.

The next little more than two weeks will determine whether Reeves’ political ambition – the governorship of Mississippi – remains alive.

Reeves is in the runoff of his life in the Republican primary for governor with former state Supreme Court Chief Justice William Waller Jr. On paper, Reeves is in the most advantageous position. He garnered 182,979 votes or 48.9 percent in unofficial returns against Waller who captured 33.3 percent of the vote. Freshman state Rep. Robert Foster had the other 17.8 percent.

In other words, Reeves missed capturing a majority and avoiding a runoff by about 8,100 votes. Reeves had a sizable lead on Tuesday night, and he also has a sizable cash-on-hand advantage.

Still, a runoff involves risks. In most cases, fewer people vote in a runoff than in the first election. The runoff normally is an exercise in a candidate getting his or her voters to return to the polls.

Reeves won 74 of 82 counties Tuesday night, but he lost three crucial ones – the Jackson metro counties of Hinds, Rankin and Madison. Waller is a Hinds resident. Reeves is a Rankin County resident and native. It had to be a stinging blow to lose his home county.

“There is an awful lot of insiders here in the Jackson metro area, and we always knew that was going to be a challenge,” Reeves said after the election.

The insiders Reeves was referring to would include the highest concentration of state employees and teachers in the state – two groups that have expressed disappointment with their pay increases in recent years and have experienced first hand recent state budget cuts that have impacted their jobs and their agencies.

Those could be people who would be more likely to return to the polls for a runoff. Waller, of course, would need more than a strong turnout in those three populous counties to win, but those counties might provide him a slither of hope.

The real issue for Reeves, in both the runoff and in the general election against Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood, if he defeats Waller on Aug 27, could be the same issue that is viewed as his strength – his experience built from that political ambition.

Reeves, with the blessing of outgoing Gov. Bryant, is running as the incumbent, saying the state is heading in the right direction thanks in part to his leadership as lieutenant governor. Other candidates say that is not true and cite statistics and perceptions to make their case that the state is lagging compared to the region and nation.

In total, those candidates got a whole lot more votes on Tuesday than did Reeves.

There are other factors that will play out in the November general election, but the perception of the condition of the state cannot be ignored.

In addition, Reeves is running to make history. There has been no candidate in modern times elected governor after serving two four year terms as lieutenant governor.

Going back to the beginnings of the 1900s, there have been only seven lieutenant governors elected governor and all of them served only four years before running for and winning the higher office.

Over an eight year period, a lieutenant governor must say “no” quite a bit, as Reeves has acknowledged in the past. Saying no makes a lot of enemies.

After the election Reeves put a positive spin on the upcoming runoff, saying he led in a vast majority of counties and that for the first time since the 1800s more people voted in a Republican primary for state offices than in the Democratic primary –  374,117 to 290,025.

Of course, that provides no guarantee for the general elections. Just ask six of the last seven Democratic nominees for governor whose party won more votes in the primary before they lost the general election.

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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.