The runoff for the Republican nomination governor was already bound to be interesting: Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, a leader of the legislative branch; vs. Bill Waller Jr., the former leader of the state’s judicial branch.
Reeves, who led the Aug. 6 primary with 49 percent of the vote, remains the favorite because of his statewide name recognition, his opposition to any tax increases and because he was awfully close to winning the nomination outright nine days ago.
But this week’s decision by the third-place finisher, state Rep. Robert Foster of DeSoto County, to endorse Waller gives the former state Supreme Court chief justice a little more juice going into the Aug. 27 runoff.
Foster’s endorsement certainly means that the Republican voters of DeSoto County, the rapidly growing next-door neighbor to Memphis, could be the decision makers in the runoff.
The only two counties that Foster won in the primary were DeSoto and one of its less populous neighbors, Tate County. If the majority of Foster’s 10,000-plus votes in DeSoto County break for Waller, and something similar happens in other large Republican counties, Waller has an excellent chance of winning the runoff.
Still, Reeves’ statewide appeal cannot be ignored. He won 74 of Mississippi’s 82 counties on Aug. 6, leaving only the two for Foster and six for Waller (Hinds, Madison and Rankin in the Jackson area along with Lafayette, Leflore and Sharkey counties in north Mississippi
That amounts to a huge statistical advantage for the lieutenant governor, and it does provide him with some margin for error. However, the flip side of that analysis is: How could Reeves win 74 counties but fail to win a 50 percent majority in the primary?
If you think about it, the issues in this runoff — a fierce “just say no” conservatism vs. the idea of using government’s power to help people — are setting up a lot like the Republican U.S. Senate runoff in 2014 between incumbent Thad Cochran and Chris McDaniel.
Cochran’s campaign got criticized for recruiting black residents who had not voted in the primary to support the incumbent. Cochran narrowly won the runoff and the general election, but resigned three years into his term and has since died.
Cochran was skilled at steering federal money to Mississippi for many worthwhile programs. Waller, like Cochran, is willing to consider raising money for government programs — better highway maintenance and an expanded Medicaid program come to mind.
It certainly wouldn’t be a surprise if the Waller campaign is taking a page from the 2014 Cochran playbook and working to attract minority support in non-Republican areas like Hinds County.
But the runoff basically comes down to what Republican voters in places like DeSoto County think, and whether they believe the “no new taxes” theme of the last several years has worked for Mississippi.