GOP gubernatorial candidate Bill Waller Jr. speaks during the Madison and Hinds County Republican Women candidate forum at The Lake House in Ridgeland, Miss., Monday, August 26, 2019. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

Bill Waller Jr., the former chief justice of the Supreme Court and son of a former governor, is “strongly considering” challenging Gov. Tate Reeves in the 2023 Republican primary.

Waller’s entrance into the governor’s race would rattle the state’s political environment and set up a dramatic rematch of the 2019 Republican gubernatorial primary, which Reeves won by eight points after a bitter runoff election with the former justice.

Waller told Mississippi Today on Tuesday he’s been weighing a run for several weeks, talking with family, friends and political advisers. He’s ruled out running as an independent, which several politicos have suggested he do, and would instead run in the August Republican Party primary.

“I’m praying about it, I’m looking at who else might be in the race and what else might happen, but I think there’s a critical need for a change of leadership at the top,” Waller said. “In a lot of ways, the issues I ran on in 2019 are more dire, more pronounced now. So many people in this state are hurting or frustrated, and the response (from the governor) just isn’t there. It’s undermining the fabric of this state.”

Reeves, beginning the final year in his first term as governor, on Tuesday signed qualifying papers for reelection and held a press conference at Mississippi GOP headquarters.

Reeves said he had not heard Waller is considering another challenge, but appeared nonplussed when asked about it, noting that in America “anybody can run for any office they want to.” He said he is proud of his record as governor and has notched “historic successes” despite challenges of multiple natural disasters and the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I will continue to fight for conservative beliefs and will continue to fight for the conservative values Mississippians believe in,” Reeves said. He repeated the old political adage that there are only two ways to run for office, “scared or unopposed.”

“There’s a reason I’m 0 for 12 on running unopposed,” Reeves said. “That’s because I’m not scared to take on big things and do big things for the people of our state. When you stand up for what’s right and stand up for what you believe in, there are those on the left that don’t necessarily like the conservative direction we’ve taken Mississippi in the last few years. I’m certain we will have opposition, and whoever that might be, we will talk about our record and that’s a record I’m proud to stand on.”

Candidates for statewide office face a Feb. 1 deadline to qualify for the 2023 election.

The potential GOP primary rematch will turn heads across the state. Waller, who announced his 2019 bid in the eleventh hour and battled a name ID deficiency outside the Jackson metro area, forced a runoff with Reeves in the August GOP primary. Waller lost that runoff by 8 points, but he won 17 counties — including most of the state’s metropolitan and suburban counties packed with more educated Republican voters.

Waller also forced Reeves to spend more than $7 million to win the primary — a staggering figure that made Reeves’ general election bid against formidable Democratic nominee Jim Hood more difficult. That history looms large as whoever wins the 2023 Republican primary could likely face another strong Democratic challenger, longtime Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley, who is also considering running for governor this year.

“I can tell you this, whatever I do next in my career will continue to be focused on improving the lives of average Mississippians who can’t write a $1,000 campaign check, and who need state officials with some real backbone to stand up for them, their families and their communities,” Presley said Tuesday when asked of his 2023 plans.

Reeves spent much of the 2019 primary blistering Waller as “too liberal” for Mississippi. But Waller, a longtime Republican voter, earned the endorsement in 2019 of several former Mississippi Republican Party leaders.

READ MORE: ‘I think he’s more electable than Tate’: Four past GOP chairmen endorsed Waller over Reeves

Waller supports Medicaid expansion, which economists say would provide health care for poor, working Mississippians and help struggling hospitals keep their doors open. Reeves vehemently opposes the measure and reiterates, without evidence or research backing, that the state cannot afford it.

Waller also talked openly about wanting to greatly increase teacher pay and said he would consider raising the state’s second-oldest-in-the-nation gas tax to help fund needed repairs to roads and bridges. Reeves blocked several efforts in his eight years as lieutenant governor to raise the gas tax.

In the Jan. 3 interview with Mississippi Today, Waller brought up another key issue that he said would be a focus in a potential 2023 bid: the state’s sprawling welfare scandal. Reeves has been implicated in pieces of the scandal, and he faced a barrage of criticism from voters after his office abruptly fired the attorney who was investigating the breadth of the misspending.

“Corruption is so apparent and out of control, and most Mississippians I know are sick of it,” Waller said. “Money intended for poverty-stricken children and others being diverted to cronies and personal friends is outrageous.”

READ MORE: Gov. Tate Reeves inspired welfare payment targeted in civil suit, texts show

Reeves has long touted his focus on economic development and other fiscal gains he says the state has made under his decades of leadership. He’s said his focus on conservative spending and tax policy has been a success for the state.

But Waller on Tuesday said more needs to be done.

“We’ve got the steel mill in Lowndes County, and that was a great announcement,” Waller said. “But unfortunately, the great majority of the state has been ignored for a decade or more. A lot of people in most regions of the state can’t remember the last time they got the benefits of an economic announcement like that.”

READ MORE: Bill Waller did not endorse Tate Reeves in 2019 governor’s race

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Adam Ganucheau, as Mississippi Today's editor-in-chief, oversees the newsroom and works with the editorial team to fulfill our mission of producing high-quality journalism in the public interest. Adam has covered politics and state government for Mississippi Today since February 2016. A native of Hazlehurst, Adam has worked as a staff reporter for AL.com, The Birmingham News and The Clarion-Ledger and his work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Adam earned his bachelor’s in journalism from the University of Mississippi.

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.