The inevitable versus the upstart, the policy pragmatist versus the political purist – primary voters decide at last.
In a Republican gubernatorial primary on Tuesday, Tate Reeves and William “Bill” Waller Jr. face each other to see who will earn the party’s nomination and advance to the general election against Democrat Jim Hood.
Reeves nearly crossed the 50 percent threshold on Aug. 6 and now hopes that high name recognition, commanding financial advantages and a message of unyielding conservative governance will carry him to the GOP nomination.
Waller, meanwhile, hopes that he can cobble together a winning coalition ready for a new direction in state government. In his effort to make up the gap, he touts the endorsement of the now-eliminated gubernatorial candidate Robert Foster and his problem-solver campaign pitch.
Tuesday’s primary runoff is open to any voter who cast a ballot in the Republican primary on Aug. 6, or to any voter who did not cast any ballot at all on Aug. 6.
Any voters who participated in the Aug. 6 Democratic primary cannot participate in the Republican runoff elections on Tuesday.
Reeves, 45, is completing his second-term as lieutenant governor, a powerful position from which he has presided over the state Senate and wielded significant control over the legislative process.
Prior to that, Reeves catapulted into state politics after winning the post of state treasurer in 2003 with no prior experience holding elected office.
Before he entered politics, Reeves worked in the banking and finance industry.
Waller, 67, has also held high office within state government, though with a lower public profile. He held a post for a little over 20 years as a state Supreme Court justice, elected by the central region of the state.
For the last 10 years of his tenure on the court, Waller served as chief justice, a title held by the most senior member of the court.
The son of former Gov. William Waller Sr., the younger Waller worked as an attorney for many years before he moved to the bench. He also served in the Mississippi Army National Guard, rising to the rank of brigadier general.
The long, hot summer campaign season has highlighted many differences between the two men, both on policy and style.
The most consequential and far-reaching policy disagreement between the two men involves healthcare, specifically, the Medicaid program.
Under the federal Affordable Care Act – commonly called Obamacare – states can expand Medicaid by enrolling program recipients who earn up to 138 percent of the federal poverty line. The federal government pays for almost all of the costs associated with expansion, but there is a state match.
Touting a plan proposed by the Mississippi Hospital Association, Waller says the state can expand Medicaid without any additional costs to Mississippi taxpayers. Waller calls this plan “Medicaid reform” and frequently defends it as a conservative idea by pointing to a similar policy enacted in the state of Indiana while now-Vice President Mike Pence was governor.
Under the idea Waller supports, recipients of the expansion would pay premium and some costs for non-emergency visits to the emergency room. The hospitals themselves would also contribute toward the state’s match.
In short, Waller sees what he calls “Medicaid reform” as a necessary and financially prudent way to provide healthcare access to low wage or insecurely employed Mississippians who have no insurance.
“We’ve got a lot of people that are working part time, seasonal, contract. There’s a lot of jobs now that won’t even let people be full time workers,” Waller told the Daily Journal last week. “These are the people we need to help.”
Reeves doesn’t buy it.
“The tooth fairy didn’t leave me the $220 million a year that Obamcare expansion in Mississippi is going to cost,” Reeves told the Daily Journal. “The notion that there’s this free money out there doesn’t make sense.”
The lieutenant governor has consistently opposed any kind of Medicaid expansion. He believes costs to the state will ultimately rise above current projections and that even if the hospitals do pay toward the program it will only come through increasing costs to the privately insured.
“If you look at any other state that has expanded, their actual costs have exceeded their projections,” Reeves said.
Reeves also pointed out that a modified Medicaid expansion of the sort Waller has proposed would require a waiver from the federal government, and he doesn’t believe the Trump administration would issue such a waiver.
When asked how he would help Mississippians without health insurance access medical coverage, Reeves offered a number of proposals. Most them involve efforts to expand the availability of medical care.
“We need more medical professionals in Mississippi,” Reeves told the Daily Journal. “We need more doctors going to more rural areas.”
Specific proposals backed by Reeves include an expansion of scholarships for physicians who locate in rural areas, more medical residences throughout the state and an expansion of telemedicine capabilities.
Aside from healthcare, disagreement over infrastructure funding has offered the distinction most emphasized by the candidates themselves.
During a special session of the legislature last year, Reeves and other state leaders cobbled together a plan to direct sales tax from internet purchases and the revenue of a lottery toward infrastructure.
Waller has criticized that plan as inadequate and wants to raise the state’s gas tax. To ease the burden of this increase, Waller wants to decrease some income taxes.
“I want a conservative solution with a tax swap that actually reduces the overall tax structure and moves us toward a flat tax,” Waller said.
Reeves relentlessly describes the Waller plan as a tax increase on “hard-working families.” He says income taxes can continue to be lowered and infrastructure funded without increasing anyone’s taxes.
Disagreements over Medicaid and infrastructure funding have provided the sharpest campaign trail rhetoric, with other policies and differences in the background or outright out of sight.
On education, Waller and Reeves both support higher teacher pay, though Waller wants to move much faster and more aggressively than Reeves believes is fiscally wise.
Waller has also questioned the so-called third-grade reading gate, and wants to take a second look at it. Reeves touts the third-grade reading tests as among a successful package of education measures put into place by recent GOP leadership.
On criminal justice issues, Reeves and Waller both indicated a desire to focus on efforts to help recently released prisoners move back into society. In recent years, Gov. Phil Bryant has emphasized criminal justice reform, but many advocates say more must be done.
Reeves doesn’t look ready to tackle any sweeping proposals.
“I think we need to focus any future efforts not on sentencing reform or any of those things, but really on re-entry and ensuring that when you serve your time for committing the crime that you have done, that you have some skill some way in which to re-enter society,” Reeves said.
Waller echoed the call to provide “a pathway to re-integration to society” but also voiced a willingness to consider other ideas, like state support for an improved public defender system.
The winner of the Republican primary runoff will face Democrat Jim Hood in November’s general election.
Polls are open Tuesday from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m.