In this heated period of national politics, a gubernatorial race in deep-red Mississippi isn’t getting much attention. But yesterday’s primaries should stimulate some interest among those who like seeing conventional wisdom challenged.
The longtime front-runner for the Republican nomination and the general election as well, two-term lieutenant governor Tate Reeves, just missed getting the majority that would have enabled him to avoid a runoff. Instead, he will face former State Supreme Court justice Bill Waller Jr. (the son of 1970s-era Democratic governor Bill Waller Sr.) on August 27. The winner will face four-term attorney general Jim Hood, who easily brushed aside seven opponents in the Democratic primary.
There are a number of unusual things about this race. For one thing, Reeves, a very conventional conservative being backed by (among others) incumbent term-limited Governor Phil Bryant, could lose the GOP nomination to a rival who supports not only Medicaid expansion but higher teacher pay. For another, Reeves might have won anyway if not for a late surge of support, presumably among conservative Christians (of whom there are many in Mississippi) for a third candidate, Robert Foster, who got some buzz for refusing to let a woman reporter accompany him on a campaign trip without a male chaperone (he called it the “Billy Graham Rule”).
Waller’s lack of conservative ideological rigor would normally doom him in a state this heavily Republican. But the Medicaid expansion he favors is one accompanied by the conservative policy riders that other states have used to secure Trump administration waivers — designed more to game the system for more federal dollars than to expand coverage. (“Gaming the system for more federal dollars” could be the unofficial bipartisan motto of this very poor state.) And low teacher pay has become a powerful public concern in many Republican-controlled states.
Reeves got close enough to a majority to make him the clear favorite in the runoff, particularly given his fundraising prowess, though there are savvy Mississippians who think his charisma deficit could produce a Waller upset. Whoever wins will face an unusually strong Democratic candidate in Hood, who appears to have been biding his time in anticipation of an election year like this one.
Hood has been regularly winning statewide elections (his lowest share of the vote, in 2015, was 55 percent) at a time when Democrats have been dropping like flies in Mississippi. For a while, he was the only Democratic attorney general, governor, or secretary of state in the Deep South (Governor Jon Bel Edwards in next-door Louisiana, who is up for reelection this year, made Hood a lot less regionally lonely). Hood’s profile is one that used to be common for southern Democrats but is now increasingly rare: He’s solidly conservative on cultural issues (identifying as “pro-life and pro-gun”), and espouses an old-school anti-corporate populism that he highlights as the state’s chief legal officer. He has sued insurance companies that defrauded victims of Hurricane Katrina and pharmaceutical companies accused of fraudulent marketing practices. And he has battled Big Tech, notably Google, decrying anti-competitive practices and complicity in the opioid crisis, as a 2017 Ars Technica story reports:
Last year, Hood and Google wound down a court dispute over Hood’s investigation into how Google handles certain kinds of online content, from illegal drug ads to pirated movies. E-mails from the 2014 Sony hack showed that Hood’s investigation was spurred on, in part, by lobbyists from the Motion Picture Association of America.
Now Hood has a new bone to pick with the search giant. Yesterday, Hood filed a lawsuit (PDF)against Google in Lowndes County Chancery Court, saying that the company is gathering personal data on students who use Google’s G Suite for Education, (previously called Google Apps for Education) …
“Through this lawsuit, we want to know the extent of Google’s data mining and marketing of student information to third parties,” Hood said. “I don’t think there could be any motivation other than greed for a company to deliberately keep secret how it collects and uses student information.”
That’s vintage Hood. His conservative cultural strain hasn’t hurt him much among Democrats given their weak condition in the state; he did win appreciation from the African-American majority of the state’s Democrats for his successful prosecution of a Klansman for the infamous 1964 killing of three civil-rights activists (known as the “Mississippi Burning case” because of its depiction in the 1988 movie of that name). And he is four-square in support of popular progressive policies like Medicaid expansion and dropping the sales tax for food, while excoriating Bryant’s and Reeves’s support for the corporate tax breaks southern Republicans so adore.
Hood has been planning on a general-election battle with Reeves for some time, and if he gets it, political observers expect a close and expensive race with good turnout. A rare public poll from Mason-Dixon back in January showed Hood with a two-point lead over Reeves. Waller as the GOP nominee would create a different dynamic; there had been talk of him running an independent campaign for the governorship, and he might do better among independent voters than Reeves, but probably won’t have the heavy money advantage the Establishment candidate may enjoy. All in all, it could get exciting, and given the tendency of national media to treat off-year elections as nationally prophetic, it may even get its due of national attention.