‘A clear divide’: Dueling 11th-hour letters expose widening GOP chasm in Tate Reeves-Bill Waller governor runoff

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Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

GOP candidates Tate Reeves, left, and Bill Waller Jr. share a laugh before the gubernatorial debate at WJTV studios Wednesday, August 21, 2019.

The chasm between factions of Mississippi Republican Party leaders became evident over the weekend with two letters sent to GOP voters — one representative of a younger generation of leaders backing Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, and the other from prominent members of the party’s old guard who are supporting former chief justice Bill Waller Jr. 

Reeves, 45, and Waller, 67, face each other in a Tuesday runoff for the Republican nomination for governor. The candidates have worked the past three weeks to define conservatism in different ways, at times criticizing their opponent’s policy proposals or personality. 

“Tate is a true conservative who knows that taxing and spending aren’t the answers,” the Reeves backers wrote in a letter mailed to GOP primary voters over the weekend. “Bill Waller is carrying the water for the Democrats… It’s time to call a Democrat a Democrat.”

Signing the letter for Reeves were former GOP chairmen Joe Nosef, Arnie Hederman and Brad White. White is currently chief of staff to U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, and Hederman is a lobbyist and close Reeves friend. Henry Barbour, a lobbyist and nephew of former Gov. Haley Barbour, also signed the letter, along with Republican National Convention committee members Jeanne Luckey, Cindy Phillips and Kathy Henry.



Reeves Letter from GOP new guard (Text)

Republican Party leaders of previous generations, who endorsed Waller early in the campaign, responded in a social media letter to the charge from Reeves supporters.

“(For) any Republican in our state to claim that Bill is ‘carrying the water for the Democrats’ simply because he is addressing important issues — like infrastructure, education and health care — is reckless and wrong,” the Waller supporters’ response said. 

The party leaders who signed that letter included former GOP chairmen Jim Herring, Billy Powell, Clarke Reed and Mike Retzer. Billy Mounger and Leland Speed — longtime financial brokers for GOP candidates — also signed the letter, as did Wirt Yerger III, the son of Republican Party father Wirt Yerger Jr.

When the GOP old guard endorsed Waller earlier this year, they questioned whether Reeves could win a general election bout with Attorney General Jim Hood, the four-time statewide election winner who is widely considered the Democratic Party’s best shot at the Governor’s Mansion in at least 16 years.

In their letter over the weekend, the former Republican Party leaders underscored their concern about Reeves’ chances against Hood in November.

An important message from Jim Herring, Billy Powell, Clarke Reed, Mike Retzer and Wirt Yerger, III:Enough is…

Posted by Bill Waller on Saturday, August 24, 2019

“The old gray hairs, I guess they call us, regard Chief Justice Waller as a better candidate for Mississippi,” Retzer said on Monday. “We feel like he’s the best candidate. And there’s more than just a few of us who feel that way. Will the party come together after the election tomorrow? Who knows. I think it will. There’s a clear divide here. It looks to be a hard-fought race and certainly an emotional race.”

Republican Party leaders and voters are split between the candidates and the policy proposals the two have brought to the table. Reeves earned 49 percent of the Republican primary vote on Aug. 6, while Waller earned 33 percent. State Rep. Robert Foster, the third-place finisher who has since endorsed Waller, earned 18 percent. 

The two Republican runoff candidates have worked to shape their own definitions of conservatism the past three weeks. 

Reeves, during the three-week runoff campaign, has broadly set aside forward-facing policy proposals in favor of personal attacks on Waller and his politics. Waller, meanwhile, has pulled personality punches and declined to point out Reeves’ role in many of the perceived problems discussed on the trail, opting instead to defend his policy proposals.

Pillars of Waller’s platform include expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act — in efforts to address the state’s 31 rural hospitals in danger of closing, Waller has said — and increasing the state’s 32-year-old fuel tax to aid the state’s deteriorating roads and bridges. 

In public appearances and in campaign advertisements, Reeves has drawn the line over those two positions, likening Waller to national progressives like Nancy Pelosi, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Hederman, a Jackson lobbyist and close friend of Reeves, said on Monday that the old guard’s attitude is driven by an “old way of doing things.”

“Back in the day, those (earlier GOP leaders) used to recruit candidates to fill the state ballot,” Hederman said when asked about the intra-party split. “They’d find some good candidates. When they did that, they enjoyed a lot of the notoriety when their candidates got elected. It’s the process they worked for. Tate Reeves is not part of that process — he’s one of those conservatives running for office not being recruited and making promises just to be promoted to the next level.”