Bill Waller forced Tate Reeves to spend millions — and that could be a boon for Jim Hood

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Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

GOP gubernatorial candidate Bill Waller Jr. speaks during the Madison and Hinds County Republican Women candidate forum at The Lake House in Ridgeland, Miss., Monday, August 26, 2019.

March was a lifetime ago for the campaign of Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves. 

Reeves faced a couple Republican challengers, including former chief justice Bill Waller Jr., who had jumped unexpectedly into the primary. He endured relentless scrutiny from public school educators and advocates for his handling of a teacher pay raise and controversial voucher funding at the end of the legislative session. 

But with one of the largest fundraising totals amassed in Mississippi political history — $7 million on hand, at the time — the Reeves campaign wasn’t all too worried about the Republican challengers and the legislative setback.

Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves speaks to supporters during his election watch party after winning the GOP nomination for governor Tuesday, August 27, 2019.

Instead, Reeves and his campaign worked to get an early start on knocking Attorney General Jim Hood, the then-presumed Democratic nominee for governor.

“Thanks to your hard work raising money for Lt. Gov. Reeves, our campaign is already off to a great financial start, with $7 million in the bank,” Brad Todd, Reeves’ longtime political consultant, wrote in March to the Reeves finance committee. “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… This is the best volunteer finance operation in the history of Mississippi politics and we WILL hit our goals.”

A lot changed in the five months since Todd sent that email. Support for Waller surged on the backs of prominent Republicans who publicly slammed Reeves and his leadership style. State Rep. Robert Foster, the third candidate in the GOP primary, also punched above his weight, garnering 18 percent of the first Republican ballot.

Reeves, who opted to largely ignore his primary opponents and publicly set his sights on his general election opponent Jim Hood, narrowly missed the 50 percent threshold needed in the primary to avoid a runoff.

That strategy ended up being the most costly of Reeves’ political career. In order to get through the Republican primary, Reeves spent at least $6.2 million. That spending total crushes the previous record for money spent in a statewide election primary, previously held by current Gov. Phil Bryant, who spent $3.1 million in the 2011 gubernatorial primary.

In the three-week runoff alone, Reeves spent at least $1.5 million, mostly on television ads.

Mississippians won’t know exactly how much the lieutenant governor spent on the runoff until the next finance reports are published on Oct. 10, but what was once a pot of $7 million of cash for Reeves has been drained to about $3 million — and likely less than that.

On Tuesday night, Reeves rode home with an 8-point win over Waller in the runoff. But while Waller went home without the Republican nomination, his success in the Republican primary is a boon for Democrats in Mississippi.

Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

Democratic gubernatorial Jim Hood speaks to supporter Eric Stephenson at Hood’s campaign headquarters Tuesday, August 27, 2019.

Waller’s success leveled the financial playing field for Hood ahead of the general election. In March of this year, Reeves enjoyed a 6-to-1 cash-on-hand advantage over Hood. After the GOP runoff, Reeves holds no more than a 2-to-1 advantage over Hood.

“If (Reeves) can’t move needle spending that much money (in the primary), I don’t see him doing it in the fall,” Hood said on Tuesday night. “We will have plenty of money to respond to all that negative stuff.”

With the primaries in rearview, the political environment is ripe for major national cash to flow into the state. Mississippi is one of just three states with gubernatorial elections this year. Both the Republican Governor’s Association and the Democratic Governor’s Association have signaled massive media buys on behalf of Reeves and Hood.

Longtime GOP operatives in Mississippi regard Hood as the Democratic Party’s best chance to win the Governor’s Mansion in 16 years. Hood, a moderate Democrat, has won four statewide elections and enjoys high marks of support among Mississippi conservatives.

The possibility of a Democratic governor in ruby red Mississippi will certainly draw the attention of national media attempting to dissect political trends ahead of the 2020 presidential election. 

After a bloody GOP primary, Reeves and his campaign have much work to do to bridge the wide divide in the Republican Party that Waller helped expose. That divide played out among voters on Tuesday, with 46 percent of Republican primary electorate choosing against Reeves.

On the other side of the aisle, Hood has had little trouble building coalitions and garnering broad support from Democrats. On Aug. 6, in a crowded field of eight total Democratic candidates, Hood earned 69 percent of the vote.