Mississippi’s Race for Governor Tests the Limits of Conservatism
Tate Reeves has spent eight years slashing a state budget that had never been known for its largesse. As the two-term Republican lieutenant governor of Mississippi—a position that places him at the head of the state’s Senate, a sort of Deep South Mitch McConnell—he has spearheaded more than fifty tax cuts, the largest of which will ultimately cost the state four hundred and fifteen million dollars. Reeves, who’s running for governor this year, was instrumental in blocking Medicaid expansion (or “Obamacare expansion,” as Reeves calls it), preventing Mississippi from receiving billions in federal funding. To make ends meet, Mississippi has trimmed three hundred million dollars from its already frugal social programs. And if Reeves had got his way, in last year’s legislative session, he’d have stripped another hundred and twenty-five million dollars over five years from the Mississippi Department of Transportation (M.D.O.T.).
At the same time, the Clarion-Ledger reported last summer, Reeves had pressured M.D.O.T. to spend two million dollars on a road connecting his family’s gated subdivision, in a suburb of Jackson, to a nearby shopping center. As scandals go, this one could hardly be beaten for sheer Schadenfreude; Reeves’s personality is said to be about as warm as his attitude toward taxing and spending, and Republican lawmakers have often chafed at his autocratic leadership style, for which the Clarion-Ledger columnist Geoff Pender dubbed him “Maximus Tater I, Ruler of the Senate, Arbiter of All Mississippi Legislation.” The road-building project (which Reeves says he supports but did not push for personally) earned him a whole new raft of nicknames, some more printable than others, but the line everybody remembers—from last summer’s Neshoba County Fair, the state’s biggest political gathering—came from a Democratic candidate who called the project the “Tater Tot Expressway.”
Mississippians have to laugh about something. Eight years of radical austerity, under Governor Phil Bryant, who is term-limited this year, Reeves, and a unified Republican legislature have had predictably dire consequences. Mississippi public schools, where teachers earn the lowest pay in the nation, are suffering from a teacher shortage. Hospitals are straining to care for one of the nation’s largest percentage of uninsured citizens. Roads are bad, and more than a hundred bridges were shut down last year, when federal inspectors deemed them unsafe. The unrepentant Reeves, whose campaign had nearly six million dollars in cash at the start of July, promises more of the same if he wins the state’s top office. Earlier this year, he appeared to be on a glide path to the Republican nomination, with only a little-known first-term state representative, Robert Foster, having stepped up to challenge him. But in February the state’s recently retired Supreme Court chief justice, Bill Waller, Jr., unexpectedly entered the race and promised to solve the problems Reeves’s leadership has exacerbated.
The Republicans now had a real fight on their hands, pitting two distinct brands of conservatism—the slash-and-burn absolutism of Reeves, who also championed this year’s fetal-heartbeat law, and the commonsensical problem-solving of Waller, who often sounds like a relic of pre-Tea Party Republicanism—against each other. The mild-mannered son of a nineteen-seventies governor, Waller isn’t cut out for old-fashioned mudslinging, though his original campaign slogan took a swipe at Reeves, whose approval rating is around thirty-seven per cent: “Shouldn’t you like your candidate for governor? Now you can.” He supports Medicaid expansion, wants to raise the state’s gas tax to pay for infrastructure repairs, pledges to raise teacher salaries by a thousand dollars each year until they match the average in the Southeast, and talks about little else as he trods the state, sometimes campaigning seventeen hours a day in the hope that shoe-leather effort can overcome Reeves’s ten-to-one edge in campaign funds. “The facts are mean things,” Waller said, on August 1st, at this year’s Neshoba Fair, ticking off the troubles faced by the state.
Though Reeves had sewn up the support of most leading Republicans before Waller leapt in, four former state Republican chairs are backing the former justice—mainly because they’ve decided that enough is enough. “Our infrastructure is crumbling,” Clarke Reed, one of the fathers of the modern Mississippi G.O.P., said. “We need a gas-tax increase. Everybody knows it.” Mike Retzer, a Delta businessman who led the party in both the late seventies and the nineties, said, “Tate had an opportunity, a great opportunity to do some good for our state. Republicans are against taxes, but our roads and bridges are in trouble. Now we’re totally locked in.”
The sharp contrast between Reeves and Waller has made for an unexpectedly entertaining summer of politicking in Mississippi—and one that may not end with the Republican primary on August 6th but with a runoff on August 27th, if neither candidate wins fifty per cent in the initial voting. The campaign has national repercussions, too, mirroring a little-noted trend that has emerged in the Republican-dominated states that have, over the past decade, gone all in on a Grover Norquist–style, “starve the beast” approach to governance. Last year, in Kansas, voters elected the commonsense Democrat Laura Kelly, in a backlash to the Republican “Kansas Experiment,” an exercise in impoverishing and shrinking state government that left the state’s economy with a billion-dollar deficit. In North Carolina, where Tea Party Republicans had similarly moved a once moderate state sharply to the right, Democrats won the races for governor and attorney general in 2016. Mississippi’s next-door neighbors, Louisiana and Alabama, have broken from right-wing hegemony in recent years as well, electing a Democratic governor and a Democratic U.S. senator, respectively.
Could such a thing happen in Mississippi? A loss by Reeves, either this month or in November’s general election, would be a startling outcome for a state whose politics have always been among the furthest right in the country on cultural and economic issues. “Mississippi is under a constant state of austerity,” Marvin King, a political-science professor at the University of Mississippi, told me. “I don’t know of a time when it wasn’t. Austerity is a constant state of life in Mississippi.” Because of this legacy, King thinks that Waller may not be able to convince Mississippi Republicans to veer from the course set by Bryant and Reeves, despite the state’s drip-slow economic growth. “But even here,” King hastened to add, “there’s limits to how far right you can go.”
In 2011, for instance, Mississippi voters shot down a fetal-personhood amendment, which national anti-abortion groups had considered a lock, by a wide majority. In 2014, Senator Thad Cochran, a six-term incumbent and one of the state’s oldest and most powerful Republicans, survived a bitter primary fight against Chris McDaniel, a Tea Party firebrand. But while the center-right held in that race, just barely, Reeves, a less-flamboyant version of the new Republican orthodoxy, was already lieutenant governor, already running up his tally of tax cuts and eying this year’s gubernatorial race.
One big question, five years later, is whether the older breed of conservatives that Waller represents—the ones who still think that the state should do some things for people—can again prevail in a confrontation with the uncompromising right wing. On July 23rd, at the one primary debate that Reeves would agree to, the differences between the two visions were on vivid display. Waller dispensed with the usual platitudes and pleasantries, hammering home his ideas for solving Mississippi’s most glaring problems and sounding almost liberal at times. Explaining his support for Medicaid expansion, Waller said, “Medical care for our citizens . . . is a right-to-life issue.” Reeves, on the other hand, railed against Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi and told his prospective constituents, “If I’m elected governor, I will work for President Trump and I will act, in many ways, in a similar fashion.”
The other burning question is broader and more relevant nationally: Are there limits, even in Mississippi, even in 2019, to the amount of budget-cutting, corporate tax breaks, and dismayingly poor social services that voters are willing to tolerate? Two recent polls found that Mississippians might be feeling out their limits. At least sixty per cent now say they’re willing to have their taxes raised to boost education or infrastructure spending. Still, it appeared that Reeves was likely to survive Waller’s challenge—he had too much money, too much name recognition, and too much of a head start. But the latest polling shows Foster, who made national news in July by refusing to meet alone with a female reporter—the thirty-six-year-old explained that he was following the Billy Graham rule, just as Vice-President Mike Pence does—winning enough votes to keep Reeves below fifty per cent in the primary and force him into a runoff with Waller. (Waller, a Baptist deacon, later said that he adheres to the Graham rule, too.)
Even if Reeves emerges with the nomination, he’ll have an even more formidable challenge in the fall. The Democratic front-runner—the state’s four-term attorney general, Jim Hood—is as loved across party lines as Reeves is loathed. A burly, ruddy-faced, backslapping populist with a deep twang and a Conway Twitty haircut (otherwise known as a mullet with loft), Hood is appreciated by African-American voters for being the first to prosecute and convict one of the still-living Klansmen who conspired to kill three civil-rights workers outside of Philadelphia, Mississippi, in 1964. But it’s white Independents who’ve lifted Hood to his four statewide victories; they like his down-home style and also his famously hard-nosed negotiations with BP, after the Gulf Coast spill of 2010, which netted the state a $2.4 billion settlement. Hood has successfully cracked down on domestic violence, which had reached crisis proportions in the state, and he refused to join other red-state attorneys general in lawsuits against the Affordable Care Act. If he winds up running against Reeves, Hood will be arguing many of the same points as Waller, but with considerably more vigor. Political observers generally give him a fifty-fifty shot of winning and thereby breaking the Democrats’ twenty-year losing streak in Mississippi gubernatorial races.
Whatever happens, the fact that Reeves is having to sweat out the Republican primary is, by itself, powerful proof that even Mississippi conservatives are less than delighted with the direction in which the right wing has nudged their state. And if Reeves loses, in either the primary or the general election, Mississippi will become the latest, and unlikeliest, part of red America to reject the fiscal austerity that has defined and deformed this political decade in so much of the country.