April 4, 2019 10:56:47 AM
Tuesday's Republican Primary debate at Mississippi State drew a small crowd -- an audience of about 100 people.
It also included only two of the three Republicans running for Governor. Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, the presumed front-runner, declined to participate in the debate, claiming he was too busy running the Senate even though the Senate ended its work four days before the event.
Despite the small crowd and Reeves' absence, the debate did reveal much about the basic strategies that will be employed in the GOP Governor's race.
The race may have three candidates, but it's really all above Reeves.
Bill Waller, Jr., the retired Mississippi Supreme Court Justice, entered the race last -- filing only a couple of weeks before the deadline. If his performance Tuesday is any indication, he will run as a mainstream alternative to Reeves.
His policies appear to be centrist: He favors raising the fuel tax to fund infrastructure repairs, expanding Medicaid (in that, he was careful to point out that other red states have expanded Medicaid), raising teacher pay every year until the state reaches the Southeast average and redirecting MDA money to support home-grown businesses rather than the pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into incentives to lure out-of-state companies.
All of these positions are contrary to those held by Mississippi's current GOP leadership.
Without saying it, Waller is casting himself as the only real alternative to Reeves, who has shaped policy as lieutenant governor, the most powerful elected position in the state by virtue of its authority over the Senate.
Robert Foster, meanwhile, will appeal to those whose views are considered farther to the right. In the debate, he was reluctant to endorse anything that could be considered an outright attempt to raise taxes. Instead, he favors eliminating personal income tax and replacing it with a flat tax, an idea that has been popular among right-wing groups for the past 20 years.
On every topic presented Tuesday -- infrastructure, education, healthcare and economic development -- the flat tax seemed to be a part of his solution.
Beyond policy, Foster appears to be running as the outsider, a strategy that not only supports his policies, but -- he hopes -- turns a vulnerability into a strength.
Foster is still in his first term as an elected official. In 2015, the Hernando businessman was part of a political coup in DeSoto County, where the entire legislative delegation was swept out of office by a slate of candidates vowing to oppose every tax proposal presented to the legislature. DeSoto County has earned its reputation as the state's most devoted Tea Party stronghold.
While Foster has made some effort to portray himself in broader terms as a candidate for "all Mississippians," he remains the candidate who tweeted that anyone who voted for Democrat Mike Espy in last year's U.S. Senate special election as "either evil or ignorant."
Foster said he entered the Governor's race because of his inexperience in office rather than in spite of it, telling his audience Tuesday that serving in the Legislature "changes you."
While Waller may be casting himself as the alternative to Reeves, Foster is far less subtle. He was on the attack Tuesday, deriding Reeves for "staying on the porch" instead of participating in the debate and asking, rhetorically, who Reeves "owes favors" and has "made promises to."
In branding Reeves as the candidate of special interests, Foster hopes to rally the support of those suspicious of the ruling orthodoxy that he says Reeves so personifies.
And what of Reeves?
It is likely that Reeves will do little to acknowledge the existence of either of his opponents. Reeves didn't participate in Tuesday's debate and you're unlikely to see him share the stage with either candidate the rest of the way.
Instead, he'll run against ghosts -- Nancy Pelosi, Hollywood liberals, et al -- while hammering home his role in cutting taxes, being a fiscal and social conservative and reducing the size of government.
How much that resonates with voters who have watched the result of those big tax cuts, of which most benefited big corporations, make beggars of state agencies is hard to say. He's been a hard-liner on education funding and teacher pay raises and a big advocate for directing tax dollars to private schools.
That Reeves seems to be so narrowly focused on what benefits a narrow sliver of wealthy voters in Madison and Rankin County makes him a stranger to most Mississippians.
As a candidate, Reeves has his flaws and weaknesses, including a narrow appeal outside the Capitol bubble. In a 2018 Millsaps-Chism poll, Reeves scored near the bottom among state-wide office holders with a 38 percent "favorable" and 34 percent "unfavorable" rating. He is prone to arrogance and condescension -- while the debate was going on in Starkville, Reeves was on Facebook Live from his daughter's softball practice, a slap in the face to debate organizers.
For all his flaws, Reeves does have a couple of advantages that may ultimately make him a winner.
With a campaign war chest of more than $6 million, he is the only candidate who at this point, has the resources to run an effective statewide campaign. Foster's campaign finance report shows he has raised just a shade over $12,000. Waller hasn't filed a campaign finance report to date. When he does, it will show whether or not he has the backing to make a serious run.
Reeves also has the backing of the state's GOP leadership. He'll have the endorsement of almost all of the establishment Republicans, which is no small advantage.
Unless Foster or Waller catch fire -- not only with voters but with donors -- Reeves remains the odds-on favorite.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]
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