Gov. Tate Reeves plans to replace Republican Chairman Lucien Smith

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Lucien Smith, chairman of the Mississippi Republican Party, speaks at a state GOP election night victory party, Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019, in Jackson, Miss. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Gov. Tate Reeves, as de facto head of the Mississippi GOP, plans to replace Lucien Smith as chairman of the state party, numerous Republican sources said.

The change is not because of any major political dispute, most of those sources say, and Smith has appeared to be widely respected among party leaders. It’s partly because Smith is an attorney at a major law firm that does millions of dollars in business with the state and Reeves believes that is untoward and wants a chairman with no such entanglements.

Reeves and Smith did appear to be politically crosswise recently over the Legislature changing the state flag, with its divisive Confederate battle emblem. Although the party proper didn’t take a position, Smith told Mississippi Today, “Now is the time … for Mississippi to retire its current flag and adopt a flag that unifies all Mississippians.”

Reeves, at the time, had opposed the Legislature making the change, saying that decision should be made by popular vote.

The leadership change is not likely to happen at Saturday’s state GOP convention, which is being held online because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Republicans are expected to elect a 52-member executive committee, a national committeewoman and committeeman and the party’s six electors on Saturday.

A change in the state GOP chairmanship is more likely to come after the Republican National Convention that starts Aug. 24.

“I know the governor and chairman have had conversations about a change of leadership of the party,” said Reeves’ chief of staff Brad White, himself a former MSGOP chairman. “But there’s no sense of urgency and any discussion of who (a new chairman) might be is purely speculation at this point.”

White had little further comment on the issue, other than to say, “I think Lucien has been a fine chairman, and having been in that role I know how challenging it can be … He has served honorably.”

It’s typical for a sitting Republican governor, as head of the state party, to pick a new chairman. While the executive committee technically elects a GOP chairman, a governor’s choice is typically installed by acclamation. There has been no major executive committee challenge to a Republican governor’s chairman nomination in recent history.

Some party leaders said the fact that Reeves didn’t more promptly replace Smith is an indication that there’s no major conflict between the two — contrary to any rumors.

Former Gov. Phil Bryant, for instance, made it one of his first orders of business when inaugurated in 2012 to accept the resignation of then-Chairman Arnie Hederman and successfully push the nomination of Joe Nosef.

Bryant nominated Smith as the 12th chairman of the MSGOP in 2017 after Nosef abruptly resigned.

Smith, an attorney with Balch and Bingham law firm, previously served as chief of staff to Bryant and as counsel and budget adviser to former Gov. Haley Barbour. Smith ran unsuccessfully for state treasurer in 2011.

Smith was at the helm of the party during one of its most politically prosperous times. In last year’s elections, Republicans took all eight statewide elected seats including the the governor’s office, most districtwide seats and increased their supermajority control over the Legislature.

Smith declined a request for comment, but a party spokeswoman sent a statement on Friday.

“Mississippi Republicans have enjoyed unprecedented success in recent years, and Gov. Reeves and Chairman Smith have worked together closely to build and deliver that success,” said MSGOP spokeswoman Nicole Webb. “Likewise, they have worked jointly to develop a slate of candidates to be considered for the MSGOP executive committee. The slate will be presented to delegates at (Saturday’s) state convention ….”

While several names are floating around as possible replacements for Smith, GOP sources said they hadn’t heard a definitive short list, and noted Reeves is known to keep such deliberation and decisions close to the vest.

The state Democratic Party in recent weeks saw a contentious battle for its chairmanship that resulted in the resignation of incumbent chairman Bobby Moak and the election of former Judge Tyree Irving as new chairman.