MERIDIAN — “Governor’s race just got interesting,” read a text message the day after columnist Geoff Pender announced Bill Waller Jr. will enter the race.
The just retired Supreme Court justice deciding to take on front-runner Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves in the Republican primary stirs a lot of interest. But adding state Sen. Chris McDaniel to the mix really whips it up.
Waller was one of the candidates I wrote about 18 months ago that pragmatic Republican leaders were considering as fears mounted that Reeves could not beat Democrat Jim Hood in November. Those fears only increased as early polling data showed Reeves trailing the attorney general.
As I wrote, Waller comes with a “substantive resumé” that could play well with military-friendly, Bible-belt Mississippians. He spent 30 years in the Army guard and reserves, rising to brigadier general. He was awarded the Legion of Merit and is a graduate of the U.S. Army War College. He is also a deacon at First Baptist Church in Jackson.
A Mississippi State University graduate, Waller got his law degree from Ole Miss and rose to become a well-regarded, conservative chief justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court.
In the aftermath of Pender’s revelation, political pundits generally agreed Waller will be a credible candidate able to raise money and positioned to tap dissatisfaction with Reeves.
But it won't be easy. Reeves has won statewide Republican primaries since 2003, first as state treasurer, then as lieutenant governor in 2011. He has catered to the tea party Republican base and has $7 million in his political kitty. Waller, as a nonpartisan judicial candidate, has never won a party primary and starts with an empty kitty.
Now throw in McDaniel. The twice-defeated U.S. Senate candidate has a rabid ultra-conservative base and access to big outside funding that would make him a serious factor in any Republican primary. With Waller pulling disgruntled GOP voters from Reeves, McDaniel’s base could easily get him into a runoff.
This becomes all the more likely if President Donald Trump endorses McDaniel, apparently a real possibility. McDaniel told WAPT, “He's shown an inclination to support me whatever I decide.”
Waller will have to move fast on a number of fronts. He must quickly raise millions of dollars; gain positive name ID with GOP voters; gain traction with the tea party conservative base (He may fare well with pro-life and pro-gun voters but be viewed skeptically by anti-tax voters if he runs on a pro-infrastructure platform as expected.); and convince primary voters he has the best chance to beat Hood in November.
Reeves’ challenge will be to hold off business, Baptist, Bulldog and military defections to Waller while (probably) fighting McDaniel for the tea party votes he has worked so hard to corral, then exit the primaries strong enough to take on Hood. Getting Gov. Phil Bryant’s endorsement was a plus.
McDaniel will need lots of outside money and Trump all in to win.
How all this will play out is anybody’s guess. Could behind-the-scenes scheming head off a Waller or McDaniel candidacy at the last minute? Can Reeves cut off their avenues of support?
No longer the only anti-Reeves alternative, Hood can only watch and hope a down-and-dirty Republican primary brawl enhances his chances in November.
• Bill Crawford is a Republican former state lawmaker from Meridian.