Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn Credit: Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America

Given House Speaker Philip Gunn’s recent testing of the waters for a challenge of Gov. Tate Reeves, there was some anticipation their back-to-back Neshoba Fair stump speeches could serve as a soft launch of a Gunn gubernatorial campaign.

But if Thursday’s speech by Gunn was intended as any sort of a launch, it didn’t make it off the pad.

And except for a couple of mild jabs at each other, the two state leaders mostly threw out the same red meat for the GOP base and mostly espoused similar policies. In case you missed it, they both really, really, really oppose critical race theory being taught in Mississippi schools and vow to prohibit it. They both detest any liberal, socialistic, Democratic federal overreach coming from Washington, D.C., and they both want to eliminate the state’s individual income tax — although their plans do differ.

If Gunn plans to put any significant daylight between himself and Reeves on policy or politics, he didn’t do it at the fair on Thursday. One would doubt that “vote for me just because I’m not Tate Reeves” would be a way to entice much of the GOP base to jump ship from a well-financed Republican incumbent in 2023.

The only major policy difference between the two evident at Neshoba is that Gunn wants to eliminate the individual income tax by swapping it with increased sales and other taxes. Reeves wants to just eliminate the income tax period, and let the loose end drag.

Gunn is reportedly still undecided about a run. His speech would indicate he’s keeping his powder dry — although there’s a fine line between keeping your powder dry and giving a pretty blah stump speech at the fair.

Much of the speaker’s presentation sounded like a 1950s civics book warning of the evils of socialism and “how it continues to creep its way into this country.” He also reminded fairgoers that he warned them a couple of years ago about Democratic U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, and now “she’s become a national figure … known as AOC.”

He also doubled, or maybe tripled, down on his opposition to Medicaid expansion in Mississippi — a policy he also shares with Reeves.

READ MORE: Will Gunn run? Speaker signaling 2023 challenge of Gov. Tate Reeves

Gunn in his speech gave relatively scant attention to his income tax-sales tax proposal, despite having been touring the state pitching it (with limited success) for months and having called it the most important proposal of his legislative career.

Gunn’s only — subtle — jab at Reeves was over the federally funded $300-a-week pandemic unemployment stipend that Reeves recently halted for Mississippians.

Gunn took credit for halting it.

Gunn said, “The government needs to stop subsidizing people to stay home and not work. That’s why we called on the governor to stop the excess payments. In response to our appeal, he did so.” He was referring to a letter Gunn sent Reeves in May calling for an end to the payments that about 87,000 unemployed Mississippians were receiving. Reeves promptly initiated a halt to the payments, but never acknowledged he did so at Gunn’s request.

In his speech, Reeves’ main jab at Gunn was on the income tax-sales tax swap, and he wasn’t very subtle.

“There are some folks at the Capitol that are proposing we swap the income tax for an increase in sales taxes … or agriculture taxes, or increases in other taxes,” Reeves said. “I want to be clear, I am opposed to taking less here and more here. I am opposed to robbing Peter to pay Paul … What we need is a lower tax burden, period.

“And I will insist on it, no matter who in the Legislature stands in the way.”

Reeves has not been known as a fiery orator. In fact, in years past in his long political career, his speeches have been noted for their cringe-worthiness and stilted delivery. No one’s every mistaken him for Daniel Webster or even former Gov. William Winter.

But he’s gotten better, and while his keynote address Thursday didn’t shuck the corn or rattle the roof on the Founder’s Square pavilion, it was the highlight of the fair, complete with breaking a little news: that he plans to push for a large teacher pay raise next year.

READ MORE: Reeves promises teacher pay raises in Neshoba stump speech

Reeves bashed the media, pandemic health experts, and masking recommendations, and praised his administration’s work in education, economics, supporting law enforcement and fending off liberalism despite unprecedented natural disasters and COVID-19. He appeared to be at ease in pandering to his base and not too concerned about any challenge from Gunn or elsewhere.

Reeves, who in the past has struggled to even get an awkward chuckle out of a crowd, even managed to land a few jokes including one about “if the radical Democrats had their way, they’d have law enforcement policing the streets with squirt guns — but given their Second Amendment stance, they may ban those, too.”

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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.