Welcome to The Homestretch, a daily blog featuring the most comprehensive coverage of the 2023 Mississippi governor’s race. This page, curated by the Mississippi Today politics team, will feature the biggest storylines of the 2023 governor’s race at 7 a.m. every day between now and the Nov. 7 election.
Four summers ago, Bill Waller Jr. had Tate Reeves on the ropes.
Waller, the former Mississippi Supreme Court chief justice who challenged Reeves in the 2019 GOP primary, had forced the powerful lieutenant governor into a runoff after Reeves’ allies had spent months downplaying his primary challenger.
What began as a modest campaign for Waller swiftly picked up steam. He was earning notable support from suburban Republicans. Respected GOP party leaders spoke highly of him and several even endorsed him. In the run-up to the primary, it was clear that Waller was a force for Reeves to reckon with.
The reason for that was simple: a fresh, new-to-the-modern-GOP platform. Waller ran on three major issues that year that few previous Republicans had: raising the state’s lowest-in-the-nation teacher pay, improving the state’s crumbling roads and bridges, and expanding Medicaid to save sick Mississippians and struggling hospitals. And on those three issues, Reeves got absolutely blasted.
Teachers groups torched Reeves for his years of inaction on teacher pay. Roadbuilders admonished Reeves for not committing to improving the state’s crumbling infrastructure. Hospital leaders flocked to support Waller when Reeves famously dug his heels in on his refusal to allow Medicaid expansion.
We know the rest of the story. Reeves ultimately won the runoff by about 28,000 votes. But in the process, Waller defeated Reeves in 17 counties, including Reeves’ home county Rankin (Reeves lost by 20 percentage points in his own home precinct). So many Mississippi Republicans had rebuked Reeves’ positions on those three main issues.
So Reeves, after he won the general election later in 2019, responded.
In his first four years as governor, Reeves checked off two of those three major Waller platforms — though one should deeply scrutinize whether Reeves was truly responsible for either accomplishment.
In 2022, lawmakers passed the largest teacher pay raise in state history, which Reeves gladly signed into law and is now, interestingly, taking credit for. In 2023, lawmakers appropriated a heap of funds to the Mississippi Department of Transportation, which Reeves also signed. (Plus, the state is benefitting profoundly from President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill.)
But Reeves never did get around to addressing that third successful Waller platform idea: Medicaid expansion. In fact, Reeves has quadrupled down on his resistance to it. Most people blame Reeves solely for Mississippi not joining 40 other states — including many Republican-controlled ones — in passing the reform that would provide health care to at least 200,000 poor, working people.
Today, Reeves faces the same headwinds he faced in that 2019 primary against Waller. Democratic challenger Brandon Presley has made Medicaid expansion — and Reeves’ refusal to accept it — one of two main planks of his platform.
But this year, Presley has something that Waller didn’t have four years ago: a borderline insurmountable hospital crisis that every Mississippian is deeply familiar with.
Today, almost half of Mississippi’s rural hospitals are at risk of closure, according to one report. Many financially struggling hospitals cite major losses on uncompensated care, or services provided to people without health insurance coverage — emergency rooms by law cannot turn patients away, regardless of their coverage status.
Mississippi, which is home to one of the highest percentages of uninsured residents, continues to rank as the least healthy state in the nation. We are leading the nation in so many negative health outcome rankings.
A big solution to these problems, Presley has argued, just like Waller argued in 2019, is Medicaid expansion. As the health care crisis worsens, more Republicans than ever before support Medicaid expansion. In multiple polls conducted this year, more than 50% of Republican voters said they support expansion. Even incoming Republican Speaker of the House Jason White publicly says lawmakers will consider expansion in 2024, and that his party deserves criticism for refusing to consider it.
Reeves, meanwhile, is struggling to reach 50% support in polling ahead of the Nov. 7 election, and political operatives on both sides are preparing for the first general election runoff in state history, which would occur on Nov. 28.
Waller, who publicly considered but decided against challenging Reeves again in the 2023 GOP primary, must be asking himself how differently his 2019 primary runoff would’ve gone had the hospital crisis been at the forefront like it is in 2023.
In November, Presley just might be able to answer that question for him.
Headlines From The Trail
What We’re Watching
1) Brandon Presley on Tuesday called for an increase in Mississippi’s $7.25-per-hour minimum wage. It’s an interesting position to take late in a campaign, and one that has earned some bipartisan support in several other states. Many people in Mississippi, home to the nation’s lowest median household income and highest poverty rate, may appreciate the proposal. But not everyone. On Wednesday, a conservative blogger panned Presley’s proposal as “a familiar Democratic tune.”
2) Tate Reeves and Brandon Presley will be at the Mississippi Economic Council’s annual Hobnob event, where business leaders from across the state will hear speeches from candidates for statewide offices. It’s one of very few times this cycle where the two candidates have been in the same room. Presley speaks at 11:25 a.m., and Reeves speaks at 11:50 a.m.
3) Reeves is expected to travel to Oxford on Thursday evening for the annual Good Ole Boys and Gals event. A Mississippi political tradition for about 30 years, this gathering at a shed in the woods allows people to eat barbecue, then grill Mississippi political candidates one-on-one. Four years ago, when Reeves was running for a first term in office, Donald Trump Jr. attended the event. Might there be another high-profile guest this year?