Tate Reeves speaks during his kickoff event for his race for governor on April 8, 2019. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Gov. Tate Reeves has been one of the shrewdest politicians on High Street, and in his eight years as lieutenant governor, he was known for hardball politics and running the Senate with an iron grip.

He was not often accused of indecisiveness or fence straddling, and he wasn’t overly prone to pandering. He was known for his penchant to hack people off — even his fellow Republican leaders — which Reeves has repeatedly chalked up to, “I know how to say no to my friends.”

But in his first year as governor, Reeves has straddled the fence on several major issues, shown indecisiveness and foot dragging and frequently put pandering ahead of policy. He’s also upped the ante on drawing ire from … well, all quarters.

As one political social media poster recently put it: “He has managed the difficult task of upsetting his base, upsetting his detractors, and even upsetting people who don’t normally care.”

Take, for instance, the issue of changing the state flag, removing the Confederate symbol. Reeves, likely fearing fallout from the more right-wing of the GOP base, was loath to join many of his fellow Republican leaders in the (successful) push to change it.

But, perhaps not wanting to wind up on the wrong side of history, Reeves signed the Legislature’s flag removal into law, despite having said voters should decide. His explanation for this included, “For economic prosperity and for a better future for my kids and yours, we must find a way to come together … No matter where you are, I love you, Mississippi.”

READ MORE: After waffling for years, Gov. Tate Reeves signs bill to change state flag.

Gov. Tate Reeves speaks to media about his COVID-19 orders on March 31, 2020.

Reeves managed to draw scorn from both sides on the flag. Those supporting reinstating the old flag have excoriated him on social media for not blocking the change, using the hashtags “TraitorTate” and “OneTermTate.” His main response has been a vow that he’ll not let the “cancel culture” go ‘round removing other Confederate symbolism or statues around Mississippi.

Reeves has also managed to catch fire from all quarters on his COVID-19 pandemic responses, or lack thereof. With piecemeal, hang-fire orders on mask wearing and other measures, he’s been criticized by both those wanting stringent public health regulations and those who believe government should be hands-off.

Reeves has mostly attempted to issue COVID-19 orders on a county-by-county basis — despite pandemics not recognizing county borders. But he also has, as the state’s infections wax, issued statewide orders … but then rescinded them … then reinstated some because cases grew again.

He’s decried the “heavy hand of government,” defending criticism that he should have done more, sooner, but managed to issue enough pandemic edicts to also rile up the more libertarian wing of his base. Along the way, he’s also managed to insult state medical leaders.

While eschewing state health leaders’ pleas for a statewide mask mandate, he’s — slowly — issued mask-wearing executive orders for a majority of the state in dribs and drabs over weeks as infections in Mississippi continue to set records.

READ MORE: Gov. Reeves again rejects statewide mask mandate, downplays soaring COVID-19 numbers. 

And, as a real crowd pleaser, he’s shown up in crowds not wearing a mask and hosted Christmas parties and fundraisers. This as he’s issued executive orders for Mississippians to wear masks and limit gatherings — or as people have accused him on social media, “Rules for thee, but not for me.”

Heck, he likely even has drawn the ire of his teenaged daughter. In an inexplicable defense of having Christmas parties at the Governor’s Mansion during a surge in the pandemic, he noted he has cancelled some events, including his daughter’s 16th birthday party. But he continued to hold receptions for political leaders and campaign donors, saying they can be held safely.

Reeves, through some surgical vetoes, has angered both sides of the aisle in the Legislature, and drawn litigation from fellow Republicans.

With a veto aimed at preventing loss of a teacher merit pay program, he still managed to tick off many educators because he also vetoed large swaths of other school funding. And despite vowing to push for large teacher pay raises when he campaigned for governor, Reeves recently released his budget proposal sans any teacher pay raise.

READ MORE: Gov. Reeves budget proposal: Eliminate income tax, skip teacher pay hike, create ‘Patriotic Education Fund’

Former Republican state Rep. Robert Foster challenged Reeves in last year’s GOP gubernatorial primary. The little-known, underfunded Foster made a surprisingly strong showing, pulling 18% of the vote from mainly the ultra-conservative wing of the state Republican base.

Foster, who has built a substantial social media following, is critical of Reeves’ showing as governor so far.

“He’s riding the fence on everything,” Foster said. “He’s pulling the typical career politician move, licking his finger, sticking it in the wind and seeing which way the politics are blowing. He doesn’t have the courage to do what he thinks is right.”

Foster has been very vocally against COVID-19 restrictions on businesses and mask-wearing or other mandates and has criticized Reeves’ orders and policies.

“The pandemic is a true test of his lack of leadership abilities — a very high stress situation, worldwide pandemic with a lot of death, suffering and economic loss,” Foster said. “The main thing I think is it has shown his unwillingness to stick to principle — obviously he doesn’t have any principles. He’s a politician at heart, going to go with the way the loudest group screams. He obviously doesn’t believe in masking because he’s been caught at numerous events not wearing one … but he doesn’t have the backbone to stand up to (those wanting mask mandates).”

“On the flag, he campaigned over and over again that people should have a vote on whether the flag should be replaced, but then he went back on his word,” Foster said.

Longtime former Mississippi State University political science professor and politico Marty Wiseman notes some of the blowback Reeves receives “may just be because of his personality.”

“He’s built a pretty good history over eight years in the lieutenant governor’s office of creating resentment even from the people who want to help him,” Wiseman said. “There’s even those folks that would tend to vote the way he wanted them to vote, who would resent his abrasive-type approach … He seems never to miss an opportunity to get crossed up with one side or another … It’s also well known that he holds a grudge, from then on.

“He’s one of those people that, whether you’re ‘fer him or agin’ him, you tend to take a ‘What the hell has he said now’ attitude with him with some skepticism,” Wiseman said.

Some of the political blowback Reeves has received thus far in his first term has had many state politicos wondering if he’ll garner a major challenger in the next gubernatorial GOP primary in 2023.

But Millsaps College government and politics professor Nathan Shrader said he doesn’t believe Reeves has suffered any major political damage so far, and his pandering to President Trump’s supporters insulates him.

“From a public administrator standpoint, I think he has handled the crisis, the pandemic, as poorly as any administrator or person in leadership could,” Shrader said. “… Rank and file (Mississippi) Republican voters — 756,000 of them — voted for Donald Trump for president, and the governor has shown an almost cult-like loyalty to him. He has pushed every single button on the Trump menu, and Trump is likely to still be the figurehead of the Republican Party in 2023 … Tate Reeves will benefit from that.”

As for the flag, COVID-19 policy and other issues, Shrader said he’s reminded of the words of a colleague he knew years ago.

“He said, ‘Remember, issues don’t matter,’” Shrader said. “I think we’ve learned in the Trump era, he was right. Those issues matter less and less. It’s about the branding and the marketing … I’m just not seeing weakness on the governor’s part with Republicans. People on the right are upset, but (2023 is) a long time away, and there are enough other issues where they are in concert with him — he’s going to be the Republican nominee, he’s a fundraising machine, and it’s hard to beat an incumbent.”

Marvin King, professor of political science and African American studies at Ole Miss, said Reeves has suffered from some political shift in Mississippi politics since he ascended from lieutenant governor to governor.

“The ground has shifted,” King said. “Things were probably simpler — what Republicans stood for, what Democrats stood for. There were less internecine battles between Republicans. Things like coronavirus is a different beast than any of us has had to deal with before … Coronavirus might be one of those wedge issues — older voters are definitely more Republican than not, but they also stand to suffer most from this disease.

“Business owners need businesses to stay open, but plenty of Republicans are in health care, too, and they are like, ‘Hey, mask up,'” King said. “It’s dividing the party, so that might explain why he’s doing things county by county … He can’t win. So much of his constituency relies on businesses being open, but it’s not good business if the only people doing well are morticians. He’s in a pickle.”

King said Reeves was on similar shaky political ground with the flag issue.

“The national mood had changed and even Mississippi can only ignore national moods so much,” King said. “It’s pretty clear that had the Legislature not acted, big businesses would do things in response that Mississippi might not be able to recover from.

“… I think if you were sitting in Reeves’ shoes at that moment in time, there were no ideal political solutions for him,” King said. “It was, ‘How can I get this out of the news cycle as quickly as possible? I’ll sign it. It’s the summer. I can go back to talking about coronavirus.'”

King said there’s a lot of time before Reeves stands for reelection in 2023 and he has a lot of time to mend political fences.

“By then from his perspective, knock on wood, coronavirus will be over, people will have gotten used to the new flag and he’ll be able to point to some accomplishments, especially if the economy comes back,” King said.

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.