Gov. Tate Reeves has faced a litany of unprecedented problems in his first term as Mississippi governor: a bitter fight for power with legislative leaders, turmoil and scandal within multiple state agencies, consistent staff turnover, costly natural disasters, and a life-disrupting pandemic.
But thanks to a racially progressive update to the state constitution, Reeves could soon face another unprecedented problem: a crapshoot of electoral politics in which the majority party incumbent is in real danger of losing the Governor’s Mansion.
As the 2023 statewide election cycle revs up in coming days, here’s the scenario that should keep Reeves — one of the most unpopular governors in America — up at night.
The governor’s nightmare election scenario begins, of course, in the August 2023 Republican primary. Reeves’ allies have stalked every move of Speaker of the House Philip Gunn for years. Gunn, the third-term Republican leader, has been transparent about both his disdain for Reeves and his consideration of running against him in 2023.
Gunn, who has plenty of conservative bonafides and is well-known by the GOP donor class, has a name ID problem outside the Jackson metro area that he’d need to start addressing in short order. Still, many prognosticators believe a Gunn primary challenge could stretch Reeves thin both financially and politically.
Besides Gunn, these prominent Republicans have heard from advisers about how a primary of Reeves could play out:
- Attorney General Lynn Fitch, who is fresh off a high-profile takedown of Roe v. Wade. Fitch, a former state treasurer who has coasted into both statewide offices she’s held, has spent tens of thousands of dollars to make sure voters know about her role in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case.
- Secretary of State Michael Watson, who hails from the Mississippi Gulf Coast, which has traditionally been Reeves’ most reliable base of voters. Watson would certainly look to pick off voters to the right of Reeves who have been less than enamored, to say the least, with the incumbent’s leadership.
- Former state representative Robert Foster, who unsuccessfully ran against Reeves in the 2019 primary for governor. Foster, a far-right conservative who has been banned from Facebook and Twitter for his misinformation posts about the pandemic and the 2020 presidential election, garnered 18% of the 2019 primary vote.
If one of these four candidates ran, Reeves would likely have to spend at least $1 million to lock up the primary victory. If two or three of these candidates ran, the GOP primary could be considered a toss-up.
But winning the Republican primary is the very least of Reeves’ concerns.
Next, of course, Reeves would need to size up the Democratic nominee for governor. The most notable Democrat considering a gubernatorial run is Brandon Presley, the longtime northern district public service commissioner.
Presley, who speaks with a deep country drawl and is an actual relative of Elvis, is a native of northeast Mississippi, the other region of the state where Reeves has performed well. Presley has established a long political career focused on common-sense, apolitical priorities like expanding broadband access across the state and keeping large corporations from jacking up utility bills.
A political moderate who self describes as pro-life and pro-Second Amendment, Presley also boasts a genuine, close relationship with the state’s top Black Democratic leaders — something most white Democratic statewide candidates have never been able to say.
But Presley’s advisers believe he has legitimate crossover appeal, especially with rural white Mississippians — people who have lately voted Republican. Among the Grand Ol’ Party faithful who have recently written checks to Presley’s campaign committee is Amory businessman Barry Wax, who served on Reeves’ 2019 campaign finance committee but wrote his potential Democratic challenger a $25,000 check in 2021.
But even a strong Democratic challenger in Presley wouldn’t be Reeves’ biggest 2023 problem.
His biggest problem was not a problem four years ago. It wouldn’t have been a problem 132 years ago. That’s because in 1890, Mississippi political leaders wrote the state constitution and added a provision that required candidates for statewide office do two things: 1) win a majority of the popular vote, and 2) win a majority of the state’s House of Representatives districts.
If no candidate checked both boxes, the state House of Representatives would vote to seat a winner. This happened at least once in state history — in 1999, when the majority Democratic House seated Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ronnie Musgrove over Republican candidate Mike Parker.
The provision was written in the early days of the Jim Crow era as a way to keep Black Mississippians from being elected to statewide office. But in 2020, after the murder of George Floyd and as the Black Lives Matter movement gripped the nation, an overwhelming 79% of Mississippi voters elected to remove this provision from the constitution.
Beginning in 2023, all statewide candidates must do to win is garner a majority of the popular vote. That’s it. If no candidate garners 50% of the vote on Election Day, the top two vote-getters advance to a late November runoff.
This means that for the first time in 133 years, an independent candidate will have an absolutely real shot at winning statewide office. This is where the 2023 scenario really turns nightmarish for Reeves.
There are a number of political moderates with popularity and some name ID who, if they ran for governor in 2023, could make a splash:
- Bill Waller Jr., the former state Supreme Court chief justice who forced a runoff with Reeves in the 2019 Republican primary for governor. Waller, whose late father Bill Waller Sr. served as governor in the 1970s, considered running as an independent in 2019, but opted to run as a Republican because of the now-defunct constitutional provision. Despite an eleventh-hour entry into the 2019 primary and little time to raise money or garner much momentum, Waller came within 8 points of defeating Reeves.
- Toby Barker, mayor of Hattiesburg and former Republican state representative. Barker, a millennial, is an impressively popular figure among Hattiesburg’s Republicans and Democrats alike. Here’s how Barker spoke of his independent political label in 2021: “I think it started with my generation — people identifying more with causes or people rather than a set, rigid partisan ideology. I think people understand that there’s a lot of gray out there… If you care about your community and seek to take care of needs and lead everyone equitably, I think being an independent is the best way to do that.”
- George Flaggs, mayor of Vicksburg and former Democratic state representative. Flaggs, who is close with Reeves and served on his 2019 campaign finance committee, told Mississippi Today last year he was praying about running for governor in 2023. Flaggs, who is Black, said this of a possible 2023 bid: “People are looking for people that represent people. I believe (changing the constitution) creates an opportunity to where an independent candidate — particularly an African American candidate — can be elected at the statewide level.”
- Robyn Tannehill, mayor of Oxford and newly-declared independent. Tannehill, who has gotten plenty of statewide press during the pandemic, has developed a close relationship with Gunn and other statewide political brokers. Here’s what she said when she announced she would run for reelection as Oxford mayor as an independent: “I believe with all of my heart that at the local level we need to be as bipartisan as possible to be able to achieve our greatest potential. I’m not representing the Republican Party or the Democratic Party as mayor. I’m representing Oxford, Mississippi.”
Mississippi Today spoke with several political data analysts who have worked dozens of election cycles for both Republicans and Democrats. No analyst could definitively say who would win in a hypothetical three-way race between Republican nominee Tate Reeves, Democratic nominee Brandon Presley, and a strong independent candidate.
Without exception, though, the analysts all predicted no candidate would garner 50% of the vote on Election Day. As for guesses on who the top two vote-getters would be, no one could confidently predict that Reeves would even land in the top two.
The lowest percentage any modern Democrat has pulled in a governor’s race was Robert Gray in 2015, who garnered 33% despite no political experience and virtually no name ID. Presley, theoretically, would earn at least that 33% floor and could lead the field of three candidates on Election Day.
That leaves 67% of the remaining vote for Reeves, whose unfavorability in recent polls has been in the mid-30s. It’s difficult to envision that a decent independent candidate wouldn’t pull at least 17% of the remaining vote from the incumbent governor. Waller, if he performed similarly to 2019, would earn closer to half of that remaining vote, putting both Reeves and Waller in the high 20s or low 30s.
Even if Reeves ran first or second on Election Day, a runoff with the other top vote-getter would be far from a guaranteed victory for the incumbent. The unsuccessful third candidate’s supporters would undoubtedly flock to Reeves’ opponent in a runoff.
Had Reeves had his way in 2020, this nightmare scenario would be a distant pipe dream for his political opponents.
Before voters decided in 2020 to get rid of the constitutional provision, Mississippi lawmakers first had to place the issue on the ballot. The issue was, of course, blessed by Gunn, the leader of the House, and Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, the leader of the Senate.
But at the time, Reeves refused to endorse the idea, saying it was designed “to help elect Democrats” to statewide office.
The governor’s stance then was certainly outside the mainstream and clearly not shared by a vast majority of Mississippians. Now, as we clearly see how the constitutional change could affect Reeves’ political life, that stance is starting to make a lot more sense.