Note: This analysis first published in Mississippi Today’s weekly legislative newsletter. Subscribe to our free newsletter for exclusive early access to weekly analyses.
Upon learning news of a legislative income tax cut agreement — what will be the largest single tax cut in Mississippi history — Gov. Tate Reeves was left with nothing but the ability to post on social media.
The governor, who took advantage last week of legislative infighting and publicly advocated for a full elimination of the income tax, was effectively sidelined when lawmakers agreed on a deal behind closed doors on Saturday.
Reeves called the tax plan “a good step” but criticized Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann for demanding a more measured approach to cutting the income tax. Speaker of the House Philip Gunn had embraced Reeves’ plan to eliminate the income tax, but Gunn ultimately trashed it during legislative negotiations with Hosemann.
“Strong action that will change our state for the better takes time and passionate partners,” Reeves tweeted. “For transformative change, we need our state’s Lieutenant Governor to work with bold conservatives.”
For Reeves, Gunn and many Republican elected officials, the final tax cut plan that lawmakers agreed to did much less than they wanted.
All eight statewide offices and the three most powerful seats in Mississippi — governor, lieutenant governor and speaker — are held by members of the Republican Party. The Mississippi Republican Party enjoys a supermajority of both the Senate and House, meaning the party in power can pass any bill they want without a single Democratic vote.
Why, then, can’t Republicans agree on and pass full-throated reforms and other major policies? Because there are three distinct factions within the Mississippi Republican Party, each with clear voter support and led by power brokers who can swing votes and muddy the political waters.
On any given policy debate, one faction pushes and the other two pull. They are rarely in agreement on really anything. The boundaries of the factions are constantly moving, and as the national Republican Party continues its steady march to the right, many longtime Mississippi Republican elected officials have either been forced to move right with the party or are now considered moderate because their positions are unchanged. Still, many Republican elected officials often try to fit in two or more groups at once.
The intra-party struggle for power and a clear identity reared its head during the income tax debate this legislative session as seemingly no Grand Old Party leader got exactly what they wanted. Nearly every Republican is leaving Jackson disappointed in some regard, and political observers are left trying to sift through what exactly happened the past three months.
Here are the three Republican Party factions and examples of their influence during the debate on tax cuts this session:
This is the largest faction of the Mississippi Republican Party. It wields the most influence at the Capitol, and it is certainly home to most Republican elected officials in the state.
These Republicans adhere to fiscal conservative principles championed by national party leaders: lower taxes, less government spending, deregulation of the economy. On social issues, they are driven by what they believe to be conservative evangelical principles.
Gov. Reeves and Speaker Gunn reside solidly within the Establishment, though both have tried often to pander to voters to their right. Reeves and Gunn both strongly supported full elimination of the income tax, though they had differing ideas of how to accomplish that.
Many rank-and-file legislative Republicans supported the plan to eliminate the income tax. Every House Republican voted for some form of Gunn’s plan, and many state senators were open to it.
The Establishment benefits from the unabashed support of conservative media outlets — both radio and online — that will target Republicans who aren’t “in line” with Establishment leaders. Several right-leaning interest groups and powerful lobbies also worked on behalf of the Establishment to chastise Republicans who were against the plan.
This wing of the Republican Party is left of the Establishment and is growing by the term at the Capitol.
Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann is the most powerful elected official of the Moderates, who believe that many principles championed by the Establishment can sometimes be too risky or too far. They believe that fiscal policy shouldn’t be reformed quickly, especially in a poorer state like Mississippi that is always especially susceptible to challenging national economic times.
On both fiscal and social issues, they are more inclined to listen to their colleagues across the aisle about who might be affected by certain policies. For example, Senate Republicans had initially pushed as part of their tax cut package lowering Mississippi’s highest-in-the-nation grocery tax — a tax that disproportionately affects economically disadvantaged Mississippians.
Hosemann, with the help of five or six Republican Senate leaders, staved off Gunn’s plan for full elimination of the income tax with their “this does too much, too quickly in uncertain economic times” argument.
“Our constituents expect us to fund core government services in infrastructure, education, healthcare and other areas,” Hosemann said in a statement Saturday after the compromise passed. “Our budget experts have assured us we can continue to do this and significantly ease the tax burden on hardworking Mississippians.”
Hosemann is taking heat for this from both the Establishment — evidenced by Reeves’ tweet — and the Far Right.
The Far Right
This wing of the Mississippi Republican Party is on the far right side of the political spectrum. These elected officials are uber conservatives — “Reagan Republicans” aren’t usually conservative enough in their view. They, like the Moderates, also appear to be gaining in number at the Capitol, and Establishment Republicans tend to fear them in election years.
They believe that there should be little government spending altogether, that no taxpayer should help pay for services that other taxpayers benefit from. The government is the big, bad enemy of working people, and it should be completely stripped of its size and might so that citizens may take full control of their lives.
This wing of the Mississippi Republican Party is led most notably by state Sen. Chris McDaniel, who has unsuccessfully run for U.S. senator and has earned a national following among fellow right-wing conservatives. McDaniel and his supporters have panned Hosemann in recent days for blocking a full elimination of the income tax, using terms to describe Hosemann like “RINO” (Republican In Name Only) and even calling him a Democrat.
“Hosemann has stubbornly refused to consider eliminating the state’s income tax even though Governor Tate Reeves, Speaker Philip Gunn, the House of Representatives, and conservatives across Mississippi have championed the effort,” McDaniel wrote on Facebook last week. “Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. Delbert Hosemann also refused to endorse Donald Trump during his 2016 presidential campaign.”
Will it matter in 2023?
A tax cut — the largest in the state’s history — isn’t something any Republican regardless of faction is likely to lose on by the time statewide and legislative elections happen in August and November of 2023.
But there is sure to be a lot of politicking between now and then.
The Far Right wants Hosemann’s head on a stake. McDaniel and his loud supporters have wanted the state senator to run for lieutenant governor for years. As the national Republican Party continues moving to the right, Mississippi supporters of this faction appear to be frustrated right now with everyone, including the Establishment. While they can certainly be loud on social media and during rallies at the Capitol, they have never proven to have enough statewide influence at the ballot box in Mississippi to do anything about it.
The Moderates continue picking up legislative seats, particularly in suburban districts with higher educational attainment. It also appears that many incumbent Republicans at the Capitol are getting more comfortable with owning their more moderate tendencies — if not publicly, then privately while trying to shape policy behind closed doors. Hosemann, at least going into his term as lieutenant governor, had the highest approval rating of any statewide elected official in Mississippi, so any serious threat to his 2023 re-election would be a surprise.
The Establishment continues its dominance in the state and hasn’t really shown any signs of slowing down. Reeves will continue trying to placate both the Establishment and the Far Right, although the latter has appeared a losing strategy for him since he was elected governor (especially apparent during the pandemic and the 2020 state flag change). Gunn is still flirting with a 2023 primary challenge of Reeves.
The bottom line and true as ever in Mississippi: Republicans have Election Day support from everyday voters solely because of the word “Republican” behind their names. Will there ever be a broad enough understanding of the intra-party struggles and factional nuances that could spur sea change in GOP primaries?