OXFORD — Bill Waller Jr. may be a long shot to beat Tate Reeves in next week’s Republican primary for governor, but I wouldn’t rule it out.
Reeves, the lieutenant governor for almost eight years, came close to winning the nomination in the first primary with 48.9 percent of the vote.
Waller, the former state Supreme Court Chief Justice got 33.3 percent of the vote while freshman state Rep. Robert Foster had the other 17.8 percent.
With that large a lead, plus plenty of campaign funds, conventional wisdom calls for Reeves to win.
But conventional wisdom doesn’t always play out in politics.
This time last year, many were predicting that Reeves would easily win the Republican nomination and probably the general election.
By November, Waller was being mentioned as a possible candidate, as was state Sen. Chris McDaniel, the right-wing conservative from Jones County who challenged U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran in Cochran’s last campaign.
McDaniel, who frequently was at odds with Reeves in the Senate, has now endorsed Reeves in what must be one of the more classic examples of politics making strange bedfellows.
Foster has endorsed Waller.
In a forum at the Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics at Ole Miss last November, GOP political activist Austin Barbour predicted that Reeves would be the Republican nominee and defeat Jim Hood in the general election.
He didn’t mention McDaniel, but answering a question about the Waller possibility, Barbour discounted it. Judges have a hard time winning statewide elections for other offices, he said. Moreover, since judgeship elections are supposed to be nonpartisan, Barbour said he didn’t even know if Waller was a Republican and quipped that maybe he would run against Hood.
Barbour also disputed Reeves’ unpopularity as a deciding factor. The nature of the job in being a strong leader in the Legislature requires saying no to some within one’s own party, Barbour said.
Barbour’s opposite on the panel, former Democratic state Rep. Brandon Jones, made no predictions about the race, other than to point out his opinion that Hood is more likeable than Reeves. He referred to a mantra originated by Carl Rove for George W. Bush in Bush’s successful campaign against Al Gore in 2004 — “Who would you rather have a beer with?” — the implication comparing Reeves to Gore and Hood to Bush.
That conversation was about nine months ago, and Waller has become a more serious candidate than Barbour predicted.
If he runs against Hood, it will be in the general election instead of a primary as Barbour jokingly suggested.
I suspect one person who is pulling for Reeves almost as much as those within the lieutenant governor’s inner circle is Hood.
Waller has a campaign slogan claiming he is “the conservative Republican who can win in November.”
That may or may not be accurate. But it stands to reason that he would be a more formidable opponent to Hood than Reeves.
For one thing, both Waller and Hood, who easily won his party’s nomination, are advocating for some of the same things, although in different details: improving roads and bridges, increasing school teacher salaries and addressing health-care needs.
For another, Reeves’ personal unpopularity would not be a factor in the general election if he isn’t the nominee.
Mississippi Today’s Bobby Harrison pointed out in a recent column that there has been no candidate in modern times elected governor after serving two four-year terms as lieutenant governor.
“Going back to the beginnings of the 1900s, there have been only seven lieutenant governors elected governor and all of them served only four years before running for and winning the higher office,” Harrison wrote.
Can Reeves break that trend? Possibly. Maybe even probably. But it doesn’t look as likely as it did a year ago.
• Charles M. Dunagin is the retired editor and publisher of the Enterprise-Journal in McComb. He lives in Oxford.