Soon after Gov. Tate Reeves was declared the winner of Tuesday’s primary, the Mississippi Republican Party congratulated him for “a decisive victory.”
On the surface, it was.
When all the votes are finally counted, Reeves will garner about 75% of the vote in the Republican primary against two opponents running with little or no name identification and funding.
Reeves is viewed as the heavy favorite this November to capture his second term as governor and his sixth overall statewide office. His supporters viewed Tuesday’s results as a validation of those expectations.
“Mississippi Republicans overwhelmingly cast their vote of confidence in Gov. Reeves. They are clearly not interested in handing their state over to the package deal of Biden, Bennie, and Brandon,” Clifford Carroll, Reeves’ communications director, said referring to Democratic gubernatorial nominee Brandon Presley, U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson and President Joe Biden.
Granted, almost any candidate would be pleased to capture 75% of the vote. But it is worth noting that the two previous governors, Republican Phil Bryant and Haley Barbour, won their party primaries in their reelection bids by more than 90%.
Is the smaller size of the primary victory for Reeves a foretelling of his vulnerability come November, or is it a reflection of the changing political environment of the state as the size of the Republican primary continues to grow?
The results of the November general election when Reeves will face Democrat Brandon Presley of Nettleton will help answer those questions.
But it also might be worth noting that in a poll conducted in June by Siena College and Mississippi Today, 21% of those who said they were going to vote in the Republican primary said they planned to vote for the Democrat Presley in November. There was no Democratic primary for governor since Presley was unopposed.
Were the 25% of those who did not vote for Reeves in Tuesday’s primary among those who told pollsters they plan to vote for Presley in November?
Did Mississippians making up that 25% vote for John Witcher of Flowood or David Grady Hardigree of Jackson because they refused to vote for Reeves under any circumstance, or did they vote for Witcher or Hardigree because that was their first choice and they will be content to vote for Reeves in November?
And perhaps Witcher and Hardigree were more formidable candidates than the opposition faced by Bryant in the 2015 Republican primary or by Barbour in 2007.
In 2019, when Reeves was winning his first term as governor, a record 383,000 voted in the Republican primary in what was a surprisingly competitive gubernatorial election. This year, with no competitive gubernatorial election, the turnout is going to be close to the 2019 election numbers, which is a testament to the growing strength of the state Republican Party.
It is important to note, though, that the record for the Republican primary is far short of the turnout in the Democratic primaries of the past that often had more voters than in the November general elections.
In 1983, 828,211 people voted for governor in the Democratic primary, compared to 742,737 who voted in the general election later that year when Democrat Bill Allain defeated Republican Leon Bramlett and independent Charles Evers in the race for governor.
That will not occur this year. There will be far more people voting in November when Presley and Reeves go head-to-head.
And what makes the turnout and the vote in Tuesday’s Republican primary at least a little interesting is that in 2015, 22,738 people voted against Phil Bryant in the Republican primary in his reelection effort. Bryant went on to the general election to defeat surprise Democratic nominee, long haul truck driver Robert Gray, by 233,951 votes. And in 2007, 13,611 people voted against Barbour in the Republican primary in his reelection effort. Barbour then defeated Democratic nominee, John Arthur Eaves Jr., a Jackson attorney, in the November general election by 117,575 votes.
Maybe Reeves will prove political prognosticators wrong, but he is not expected to win reelection by nearly the margin of Bryant and Barbour.
And remember, on Tuesday more than 91,000 people voted against Reeves in the Republican primary. In the 2019 general election, Reeves defeated Democratic nominee Attorney General Jim Hood by about 45,000 votes. So, it is safe to assume Reeves has a much smaller margin for electoral error in his reelection effort than did Bryant and Barbour.
In other words, if those 91,000 who voted against Reeves Tuesday in the Republican primary do so again in November, the results of the general election could be interesting considering he only won the 2019 general election by just more than 45,000 votes.
Reeves likes to say he is a numbers guy. Privately, those numbers have to cause him a little concern.