To win the governor’s mansion this November, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, the front-runner in the Republican primary, must do at least two things – convince voters he is competent and convince them that the state is heading in the right direction.
Based on the at times military-school precision in which Reeves presides over the Mississippi Senate, it could be argued that the competency box can be checked off.
But, perhaps, it might be more difficult to convince at least some voters that the state is heading in the right direction.
At a recent event in Brandon sponsored by the Rankin County Republican Women, numerous candidates for political office spoke of the problems they wanted to solve.
“It is time we get serious about transportation,” said Brandon Mayor Butch Lee, who is running for Central District transportation commissioner. He told the crowd of fellow Rankin Countians about the dire condition of the state’s infrastructure.
Former Chief Justice Bill Waller Jr. of Jackson, who is running against Reeves in the Republican primary, echoed those thoughts. He told the crowd that Jones County School Superintendent Tommy Parker said he has to provide vouchers to parents to take their children to school because the school bus is too heavy to cross the bridge to get to their homes.
Waller also spoke of the need to increase teacher pay to the Southeastern average and to improve access to health care across the state.
“There are some amazing things about this state, but we lag behind economically,” said Rep. Robert Foster, who also is competing in the Republican primary for governor.
Attorney General Jim Hood, the Democratic front-runner for governor, also harps on the need to improve education, health care and infrastructure – the economy as a whole.
Reeves, who is in his eighth year as lieutenant governor, presiding over the Senate and playing a major role in setting policy, contends the state is on an upward trajectory thanks, in part, to his efforts. As governor he would ensure the state stays on that path.
“This election is important. It is important because over the last eight years we have proven what conservative public policy can do for our state,” said Reeves at the gathering.
Reeves, who is endorsed by outgoing Republican Gov. Phil Bryant, is running as the de facto incumbent. The focus of his campaign has not been on new policy proposals, but on trying to tie Hood to the national Democrats and on the progress he says the state has made in a number of areas, including in education and on the economy, under the watch of he and Bryant. The issues with infrastructure were solved, he might say, during the 2018 August special session when the Legislature approved a lottery with the revenue going to infrastructure and transferred money normally reserved for other programs – such as education, health care and law enforcement – to infrastructure.
The teachers, he might point out, received a $1,500 pay raise in the 2019 session.
His opponents say the efforts on infrastructure and for the teachers were not enough.
Recent polls show Mississippians are divided on whether they believe their state is heading in the right direction.
Mississippi-based Chism Strategies has been conducting quarterly polls in conjunction with Millsaps College since Sept. 17 where respondents were asked if they thought the state was heading in the right direction.
The average of those polls is 39 percent said right direction while 36 percent said wrong direction and 26 percent were unsure. In the last poll, released in April, the breakout was 37 percent right direction, 35 percent wrong direction and 28 percent unsure. In past polls as high as 44 percent said the state was heading in the right direction, but that number has dropped in recent surveys.
Tate Reeves can probably count on the 35 percent to 40 percent who believe the state is heading in the right direction. But he might have to work a little on the rest of the electorate to win their votes – and to win the election.
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.