Wyatt Emmerich: For governor, it's deja vu all over again


Wyatt Emmerich



It's deja vu all over again.


Attorney Bill Waller squeaks into a run off with a well-financed sitting lieutenant governor running on the issues of education, roads and health care.


This happened in 1971. Bill Waller Sr. was second in the runoff with 227,424 votes, 29.8 percent. Charles Sullivan led with 288,219, 37.8 percent. Sullivan led Waller by 60,795 votes and 8 percent.



In 2019, Bill Waller Jr. was second in the runoff with 124,288 votes, 33.4 percent. Tate Reeves led with 182,143 votes, 48.9 percent. Reeves led Waller by 57,955 votes and 15.5 percent.


So Bill Waller Jr. actually won a greater percentage of the primary vote than did his father, who went on to win the general election. On the other hand, Tate Reeves was much closer to 50 percent than Charles Sullivan, 48.9 versus 37.8 percent.


It's interesting to note that in 2019 the Republican gubernatorial primary yielded 372,261 total votes. While in 1971, the Democratic gubernatorial primary yielded 762,987.


In 1971 there was no Republican primary at all. That's how weak the Republican Party was in Mississippi back then. So to compare the 762,987 Democratic primary total votes you would have to combine the 2019 Democratic primary vote of 278,002 with the Republican primary vote of 372,621 to get a total gubernatorial vote of 650,623.


That means 112,364 more people voted in the 1971 Mississippi gubernatorial primary than did in the 2019 gubernatorial primary. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.


There are 2.3 million voting age Mississippians, so this year's vote was a mere 28 percent of the possible voters. That means turnout will be the wildcard in the runoff on August 27. Anyone voting in the Democratic primary cannot vote in the Republican runoff, but people who did not vote in the primary can vote in the runoff.


Looking at the raw numbers, it's hard to imagine that Reeves would fail to get just a few more percentage points. Waller would have to get almost all of Foster's votes unless there were a wave of new voters.


One point in Waller's favor is a chance to get much more name recognition in other parts of the state. Waller's position in the runoff is going to prompt a lot of voters to pay more attention to Waller and his campaign.


One strange result: Waller beat Reeves in Rankin County, Reeves' home base. And Waller beat Reeves by 20 percent in Reeves' home precinct. That's a head scratcher.


Waller's campaign is a "do something" campaign versus Reeve's "status quo" campaign. Waller wants to raise teachers' salaries, fund road construction and maintenance with a fuel tax and expand Medicaid using federal dollars.


A recent Millsaps/Chism poll indicated substantial support among Mississippians for these issues and, to a lesser extent, among Republican voters as well. If Waller can drive home these issues and distinguish himself from Reeves, he may find another gear.


Reeves has been steadfastly anti-tax and anti-spending. Balancing the budget and cutting government has been his mainstay. Quite a contrast with Waller who wants to get Mississippi moving again. This is why we have elections.


Foster was pro highway tax and pro Medicaid expansion, like Waller, although each candidate had a different twist on these issues. On the big issues, Foster seems to be more in line with Waller, although on other issues Foster seems more aligned with Reeves. A Foster endorsement is crucial for Waller.


Meanwhile, Reeves is going to marshall his forces and rally his troops and point out that all he needs is just a few more percentage points to continue his role as anointed successor to Phil Bryant.


The last time there was a Republican gubernatorial runoff was in 1991 when Kirk Fordice won. Those results show how bizarre runoff voting can be. In the primary, Fordice and Pete Johnson were neck and neck at 44 and 43 percent while Bobby Clanton had 12 percent. But three weeks later in the runoff, Fordice beat Johnson 60 to 40. Johnson actually had 25 percent fewer votes in the runoff than he did in the primary due to lower turnout. Even weirder was that Fordice, with just 28,411 votes in the runoff, went on to defeat Ray Mabus who received 368,669 in the Democratic primary.


Although Waller may now have the momentum, Reeves has got the bucks -- about 10 times as much as Waller. One suspects that will help when it comes to getting out the vote.


Indeed, there seems to be a pattern in the Mississippi gubernatorial races for the number two candidate in the primary rallying and winning in the runoff. But never has a candidate who has come this close to winning the primary ever lost the runoff.


It really comes down to whether Mississippi Republicans want to stick with Reeve's tight-fisted spending policies even while Mississippi highways, schools and hospitals deteriorate, suffer and close. If they do stick with Reeves, Jim Hood will prove to be a fierce opponent in the general. Reeves may be more in line with Mississippi Republican opinion, but Waller's positions are more in line with Republicans and Democrats as a whole.


As Mississippi Today's Adam Ganucheau noted, 465,000 of 640,000 voters in the gubernatorial elections voted for candidates who support teacher pay raises, increased highway spending and Medicaid expansion. That's 73 percent. If you're Tate Reeves, that's a scary prospect for November.




Wyatt Emmerich is the editor and publisher of The Northside Sun, a weekly newspaper in Jackson. He can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]


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