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

Lucien Smith on Monday announced he’s stepping down as Mississippi Republican Party chairman, with Gov. Tate Reeves backing Coast businessman Frank Bordeaux to replace him.

Smith said Monday he intends to call a state GOP Executive Committee meeting to elect a new chair.

The move was not unexpected. Numerous Republican sources in July told Mississippi Today that Reeves, as new de facto head of the party in his first term as governor, wanted new leadership. 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.

“All Republicans should be grateful for Lucien Smith’s steady stewardship of the party,” Reeves said in a statement on Monday. “He has been a great chairman, and will continue to be an important figure in Mississippi.”

“I support Frank Bordeaux, and believe that if the Committee chooses to elect him that he will do an excellent job growing the Republican Party,” Reeves said. “His work ethic, integrity, and conservative credentials are unmatched.”

Frank Bordeaux

Bordeaux, an insurance executive, was chair of Reeves’ Harrison County campaign committee, and a strong showing on the Coast was crucial to Reeves winning last year’s GOP primary and general election. The governor recently appointed Bordeaux to a commission that came up with a new design for the state flag that will go before voters for an up-or-down vote on Nov. 3.

The change in state party leadership, some GOP leaders said, was not because of any major political dispute, 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 wanted 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.

Smith on Monday said serving as GOP chair “has been the greatest honor of my professional life and I am proud of what we have achieved.”

Former Gov. Phil Bryant nominated Smith as the 12th chairman of the MSGOP in 2017 after then-Chairman Joe 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 said: “The Republican Party is as strong as it has ever been in Mississippi, and the state is better for it.  After three years in this role, I believe it is time for a new chairman … Frank is a friend and a strong Republican. I’m confident the party will continue to prosper under his leadership.”

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Geoff Pender serves as senior political reporter, working closely with Mississippi Today leadership on editorial strategy and investigations. Pender brings 30 years of political and government reporting experience to Mississippi Today. He was political and investigative editor at the Clarion Ledger, where he also penned a popular political column. He previously served as an investigative reporter and political editor at the Sun Herald, where he was a member of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team for Hurricane Katrina coverage. Originally from Florence, Mississippi, Pender is a journalism graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi and has received numerous awards throughout his career for reporting, columns and freedom of information efforts.