Gov. Tate Reeves prepares to answer questions from the media after signing House Bill 1671, House Bill 510 and Senate Bill 2696 into law at the Walter Sillers Building in Jackson, Miss., Wednesday, April 19, 2023. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

VERONA — Party leaders and campaign staffers scrambled this week after incumbent Republican Gov. Tate Reeves over the weekend appeared to suggest that only one conservative is competing in the hotly contested GOP primary for lieutenant governor. 

Reeves told Mississippi Today at a Saturday event in Lee County that he will not endorse either leading candidate — incumbent Delbert Hosemann or challenger Chris McDaniel — in the lieutenant governor’s race, but opined that a spirited campaign would be healthy for the state Republican Party. 

“We’ve got a conservative candidate running, and they’re going to talk about the issues,” Reeves said. “And we’ll see how that comes out.” 

When pressed to clarify if he thought one of the contenders in the election was not a bonafide conservative, Reeves demurred and offered a vague description that one of the candidates has pushed for certain issues over the past decade, though he declined to specify the issue or which candidate he was referring to.

“What that means is we have two candidates that are running,” Reeves said. “We all know the issues that one of the candidates has focused on over the last 10 years. And so, again, I’m focused on my own campaign.” 

The comments stirred several top Republicans to speculate if Reeves was tacitly lending support to McDaniel over the incumbent Hosemann in the state’s most watched primary, which could likely decide the ultimate winner of one of the most powerful seats in state government. How Reeves, the first-term governor and de facto state Republican Party leader, views and talks about the down-ballot race could have an impact on GOP voters. 

In two separate statements to Mississippi Today on Monday, Elliott Husbands, Reeves’ campaign manager, attempted to clarify Reeves’ remarks but did little to shed light on what the governor actually meant in his remarks to the press.

Husbands said in a Monday morning statement that the governor’s comments about only “a conservative” running in the race were meant to describe McDaniel, further implying the governor believed the Jones County lawmaker to be the only conservative in the race.

But Husbands walked that initial statement back, and said later on Monday evening that Reeves’ remarks about “the issues that one of the candidates has focused on over the last 10 years” were instead meant to describe McDaniel, though he still did not specify which issues the governor was referring to. 

After Mississippi Today began to ask the McDaniel and Hosemann campaigns to respond to the governor’s comments early this week, Mississippi GOP Chairman Frank Bordeaux privately stepped in to mend any bruised feelings between the two statewide officials. 

Bordeaux told Mississippi Today in an interview on Wednesday that he reached out directly to both Reeves and Hosemann regarding the matter.

“My job as chairman of the party is to make sure that there is unity in our party,” Bordeaux said.

Reeves, according to a statement from Hosemann, also made a personal phone call to Hosemann on Monday night to assure the lieutenant governor that he was not making an endorsement in the race. 

Hosemann’s statement to Mississippi Today also pointed out that several pieces of legislation Reeves touted on social media as accomplishments this year are also items that Hosemann advocated for such as infrastructure investments, salary increases for public K-12 educators and financial assistance for Mississippi hospitals.

“The two items the governor did not include were reducing the number of state employees by 2,300 and paying off a half a billion dollars in debt while not borrowing money in the last two years,” Hosemann said. “All of these originated in the Legislature with our leadership and the leadership of the speaker.

“We are grateful for the governor’s endorsement of the direction we have led the state in over the past four years. Conservative leadership producing results.”

Reeves’ comments will undoubtedly add fuel to a heated campaign because one of McDaniel’s main attacks against Hosemann is the current lieutenant governor is not conservative enough to be a statewide official in Mississippi, though Hosemann has run as a statewide Republican since 2007 and most Republican state senators have publicly backed Hosemann. 

After Mississippi Today’s reported on Reeves’ remarks, McDaniel, in a statement accused Hosemann, the current leader of the state Senate, of blocking some of Reeves’ policy proposals over the last four years.

“As Mississippi’s next lieutenant governor, I look forward to working alongside Governor Reeves to pass conservative policy, fight for our values, and ensure Mississippi leads our country back to prosperity and conservative values,” McDaniel said.

The Jones County lawmaker has often feuded with mainstream GOP leaders, making Reeves’ commentary on the far-right lawmaker more puzzling. 

The state senator found himself at odds with the GOP establishment when he challenged longtime U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran in 2014, and when he challenged Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith in 2018.

McDaniel was even a political foe of Reeves during his two terms as lieutenant governor, at the time often claiming, as he does now with Hosemann, that Reeves was not conservative enough when he ran the state Senate.

“Since ’14, he’s done everything in his power … to make sure my legislation doesn’t see the light of day,” McDaniel said of Reeves in 2014. “If I introduce a bill in a post-’14 environment, the establishment has given the order that if my name is the primary author, to have that bill killed.”

Now, McDaniel and Reeves have mended their relationship, with the longtime legislator even endorsing Reeves’ bid for governor in 2019. 

READ MORE: Chris McDaniel soared to prominence battling establishment Republicans. Then he endorsed longtime foe Tate Reeves for governor.

If he is elected to a second term as governor, Reeves will have to work hand in glove with the elected lieutenant governor, who serves as the leader of the state Senate, to get any major policy achievements across the finish line. 

But despite the governor and legislative leaders all belonging to the same political party, Reeves at times has had a frosty relationship with the speaker of the House and the lieutenant governor, who sometimes wield more political power than the governor himself.

The Republican primary will take place on Aug. 8 between McDaniel, Hosemann, Tiffany Longino and Shane Quick. If no single candidate wins an outright majority of the votes, a runoff election will take place on Aug. 29.

Editor’s note on 5/17/23: This story has been updated updated to include a statement from Sen. Chris McDaniel, which his campaign emailed hours after the story published. His campaign had not responded to a request for comment before the story published.

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Taylor, a native of Grenada, covers state government and statewide elections. He is a graduate of the University of Mississippi and Holmes Community College. Before joining Mississippi Today, Taylor reported on state and local government for the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, where he received an award for his coverage of the federal government’s lawsuit against the state’s mental health system.