A new Morning Consult poll had to grab the attention of House Speaker Philip Gunn and a few other prominent Mississippi Republicans.
The poll, conducted over a three-month period this summer, tagged Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves as the fifth most unpopular governor in the nation. Reeves had the approval of 48% of the respondents and a 42% disapproval.
Generally speaking, the nation’s governors had positive rankings in the 50-state poll. But Reeves was one of only eight governors whose popularity ranking was below 50%. Of the many Republican governors running for reelection within the next four years, Reeves ranks last in America.
The poll had to provide a little positive energy for any politician thinking of challenging the governor. Various sources indicate that Gunn, who is in his third term as House speaker, has been considering whether to challenge Reeves in the 2023 Republican gubernatorial primary.
Gunn has refused to say what his plans are. If he was certain that he was running for reelection to his current House seat and then again to the speaker’s post, he would make that abundantly clear. Such an early proclamation most likely would head off any challenges for both his seat and for his speaker’s post. But Gunn has remained quiet on his future, leading to rampant speculation about who might be the future leader of the House.
Reeves, a first-term Republican governor, has consistently been near the bottom in terms of popularity in the ongoing Morning Consult polls.
Despite that, challenging the incumbent governor would be a daunting task. Reeves’ sizable campaign war chest makes him a formidable incumbent even if he is near the bottom in a poll of the nation’s governors.
There are at least four statewide officeholders who are or have considered challenging Reeves.
First-term Secretary of State Michael Watson, when recently asked about his political plans, deferred and said he had not made a decision. Sources close to Watson say he’s considering a 2023 bid against Reeves.
Attorney General Lynn Fitch, fresh off her successful effort in ending a national right to an abortion, might never be in a better position to run for governor. Mississippi Today reported earlier this year that Fitch, based on her advisers’ counsel, has considered challenging Reeves in 2023.
Both State Auditor Shad White and Agriculture and Commerce Commissioner Andy Gipson are also said to have considered a gubernatorial bid as they’ve coursed their political futures.
The problem for any of these potential candidates in 2023, though, is that Reeves starts with a considerable advantage. The 48-year-old Reeves has been a statewide elected official for nearly all of his adult life: two terms as treasurer, two terms as lieutenant governor and now a first term as governor.
That might explain some of his unpopularity as reflected in the Morning Consult poll. He says he has not shied away from telling people no and thus creating enemies. But more than his willingness to say no, perhaps what might contribute to any unpopularity is the perception of an eagerness to go out of his way to find confrontation.
If nothing else, though, Reeves has name recognition that can be advantageous on an election ballot. Politicians who conduct polls are always surprised to learn of the number of Mississippians who do not know the speaker, secretary of state or other elected officials. But most do know the governor — especially one who has been on the statewide scene for two decades.
And more important than the name identification is Reeves’ huge cash advantage. He has never run a race where he did not have a sizable campaign cash advantage.
That will be the case in 2023. Based on the latest campaign finance reports, filed with the Secretary of State’s office in January, Reeves has cash on hand of about $5 million. On the other hand, Northern District Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley, who is viewed as the Democratic favorite for governor should he choose to run, has $520,000. Reports are that Presley has had strong fundraising efforts this year that will not be reflected on his campaign finance report until January 2023.
Other statewide officials who might be viewed as possible challengers in a Republican primary are far behind Reeves in fundraising.
For example, as of January:
• Watson had $351,026.
• Fitch had $555,120.
• White had $603,353.
• Gipson had $87,800.
In terms of campaign cash, Gunn appears to be in the strongest position with $1 million. Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann has $2.6 million, but has said he believes his current office is where he can have the greatest impact.
There will be three gubernatorial elections in 2023: Mississippi, Louisiana and Kentucky. Reeves and Democrat Andy Beshear in normally Republican-dominated Kentucky are the two incumbents eligible to seek reelection.
Beshear is among the top 10 most popular governors, according to the Morning Consult poll. But before people start arguing the poll has a partisan tilt, it should be pointed out that nine of the 10 most popular governors are Republican. And the three most popular represent states that generally are Democratic strongholds: Charlie Baker in Massachusetts, Phil Scott in Vermont and Larry Hogan in Maryland.
They all have reputations of not looking for fights.
Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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