JACKSON — Republican state Rep. Robert Foster is seizing on national headlines about his barring campaign access to a female reporter through paid social media posts and a campaign fundraising email.
And with less than four weeks from the Republican Party primary for governor, rival campaigns are quietly calculating the effects of a Foster surge should he succeed in corralling undecided conservative voters to his corner.
On Tuesday, Mississippi Today’s Larrison Campbell published an account of Foster’s campaign barring her from spending a day with the campaign unless she brought along a male colleague. The next morning, Foster’s tone shifted from circumspect (“I am sorry Ms. Campbell doesn’t share our same views, but my decision was out of respect of my wife, my character, and our faith,” he wrote on Twitter) to combative.
“Once again, the liberal left and Hollywood are attacking someone for their integrity, professionalism, and Christian beliefs,” Foster wrote on Facebook Wednesday morning. “They aren’t just attacking me. They are attacking the countless Mississippians who also share these values. All the more reason we need someone leading Mississippi who will safeguard our traditional and conservative values.”
By Wednesday afternoon, the Foster campaign was boosting his Twitter responses with paid advertisements.
Foster also told Campbell, the journalist his campaign said could not shadow the candidate, in a text message that he disagrees that the request was sexist.
“I am confident that a majority of Mississippians understand that this isn’t about gender discrimination, rather a personal conviction,” Foster told Mississippi Today on Wednesday afternoon. “I am a God-fearing man devoted to my wife and even though having a ride along with me wouldn’t be in itself immoral, the Bible teaches us to refrain from the appearance of impropriety. That’s what I did, and I’m sticking to my guns.”
In an interview on Super-talk, a conservative radio program, Foster acknowledged the publicity from what he called “the liberal media” could have an upside.
“It’s funny how that works sometimes, isn’t it?” Foster told Supertalk radio on Wednesday morning. “It sometimes can backfire on them when they try to play these games with the liberal press. It sometimes helps the person they’re trying to hurt.”
Foster continued: “I know I made the right call. I don’t have any regrets about it.”
How the controversy and Foster’s strategy plays with Republican voters in Mississippi could prove monumental to the Aug. 6 Republican primary featuring longtime frontrunner Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and former Mississippi Supreme Court chief justice Bill Waller Jr.
Several public and internal Republican campaign polls show Foster with support in the single digits, trailing Reeves and Waller. However, strategists close to Reeves and Waller as well as political observers around the state have questioned whether any candidate can reach the 50 percent threshold to avoid an Aug. 27 runoff.
After the story broke on Wednesday, several GOP campaign operatives scrambled to make sense of how the moment could affect the outcome of the election.
With even a small bump from the controversy, Foster could cement that runoff and draw national media attention to what would be the first runoff in a Republican governor’s race since 1991 — and possibly a contentious one.
“I think that this could eat into Reeves,” said Nathan Shrader, chair of the Department of Government and Politics at Millsaps College in Jackson. “Waller’s messaging has been pragmatic in terms of specific policy proposals. Tate’s messaging has been more about a conservative culture war, with the license plate ad and the ‘Hollywood liberal’ stuff. The messaging this week from Foster is more like Tate’s than Waller’s, and I think this really crystalizes for some voters that Foster is in that camp.”
Many potential voters are responding favorably to Foster.
One Facebook commenter from DeSoto County wrote on Foster’s page: “To be honest, it persuaded me to vote FOR you! I had heard many positive comments about you and was looking at other candidates as well but after seeing this article and your position I decided that I wanted a man of this integrity in office.”
A man from Hattiesburg wrote: “You for sure have our vote now!! You will not have to answer to the liberal left on judgment day but this is one thing that you will not have to answer to God for on that day.”
A woman from McLaurin wrote: “I think you won over quite a few voters just for your stance. I am a teacher and we are all watching every candidate closely (which I’m sure you already know). This has absolutely nothing to do with education but you definitely won my vote over it!”
There is precedent in recent Mississippi political history for a third-place candidate forcing a runoff. In the contentious 2014 Republican primary for U.S. Senate, state Sen. Chris McDaniel earned 49.5 percent of the vote, then-U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran received 49.0 percent of the vote.
Thomas Carey, who, unlike Foster, did not actively campaign for the seat, earned 1.5 percent of the vote, leading to a runoff election that sent Cochran back to the Senate.