That time-tested adage “be careful what you wish for” could prove prophetic for the gubernatorial campaign of Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood.
When former Chief Justice Bill Waller Jr. announced in February only two weeks before the qualifying deadline that he was entering the governor’s race on the Republican side, nobody was happier than the Hood camp.
After all, Waller was a respected jurist with a political lineage – his father was governor – who could occupy the time and money of Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, the Republican front-runner. The Hood campaign reasoned Waller and upstart gubernatorial candidate Robert Foster, a freshman state House member from DeSoto County, would be hammering Reeves on the campaign trail – weakening him for Hood in the November general election.
In addition, the theory went – Reeves would have to use some of his unrivaled campaign war chest, still more than $5 million, on something other than lambasting Hood.
But as Tuesday’s primary election approaches, the possibility exists that Reeves could fall short of the majority vote needed to avoid a runoff in three weeks.
Limited public polling and anecdotal evidence suggest Reeves may be forced into a runoff.
With superior name identification and campaign cash, Reeves still might surpass that 50 percent, plus one threshold on Tuesday and sail into the November general election against Hood who faces seven lesser known candidates with scant campaign cash in Tuesday’s Democratic primary.
But if Reeves is forced into a runoff, most likely against Waller, though Foster is still running a strong campaign, all bets are off. Conventional wisdom is that the aforementioned campaign cash would kick in and get Reeves over the hump in a runoff.
But in reality when Waller jumped in the race in February at nearly the last minute, few people thought he would be much more than a nuisance.
After all, Reeves had run statewide in four different elections and had been building and working for years to run for governor this election cycle. Waller had only been on the ballot for Supreme Court justice in the Central District of the state. Foster had only run once in a single House district in DeSoto County.
If Reeves is forced into a runoff despite the overwhelming advantage he had in name ID and in campaign cash, then there is a plausible argument to be made that he might be in trouble against his Republican opponent.
A Mason Dixon poll conducted in January found 55 percent of respondents did not recognize Waller’s name. The same poll conducted in July found Waller with 88 percent name recognition compared to 95 percent for Reeves.
At last week’s Neshoba County Fair, Hood said he toned down his speech and did not throw all “his rocks” because the Republicans were in a battle and he thought he should sit back and enjoy the fight.
But in reality, Hood, who has been planning for more than a year to run against Reeves, might not have thrown his rocks at Reeves – as he normally does – because he did not want to do any more to hurt the Reeves campaign.
There is at least one poll – a NBC Survey Monkey poll – that indicates Waller would be a stronger general election opponent than Reeves.
Reeves, based on the Mason Dixon poll, has higher negatives than does Waller. That comes at least in part from being on the statewide stage for 16 years and from being hammered all year by both Hood and the Republican candidates.
Perhaps, more importantly for the Hood campaign, is the fact that in reality Hood and Waller agree on a number of issues. They both tout as key parts of their campaigns raising teacher pay, adding more funds to efforts to improve roads and bridges and expanding Medicaid to provide health coverage for primarily the working poor. Waller and Hood might disagree on how they would tackle those issues, especially as it relates to Medicaid expansion, but they have essentially the same goals.
Sure, there are areas where they disagree. Hood talks about reducing or eliminating the sales tax on groceries, which is the highest statewide tax of its kind in the nation. Waller wants to cut the personal income tax.
The point is that Waller and Hood are closer on policy issues than are Hood and Reeves. The Hood campaign believes its policy differences with Reeves could work to Hood’s advantage in a general election.
But there has to be a fear in the Hood campaign that since they are similar on so many issues that a majority of Mississippians, will vote their default position – for the Republican candidate if it comes down to Hood and Waller.
This column was produced by Mississippi Today, a nonprofit news organization that covers state government, public policy, politics and culture. Bobby Harrison is Mississippi Today’s senior Capitol reporter.