Governor candidates reset for Mississippi GOP primary runoff

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Tate Reeves

Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, a gubernatorial candidate, flanked by wife, Elee Reeves, congratulates his supporters during an appearance at his election watch party in Flowood, Miss., Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2019. Reeves was in the lead of his party primary. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi second-term Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves fell short of the majority needed to win the Republican nomination for governor. Now facing a party primary runoff, Reeves says he will tell voters that he’s the only conservative in the race.

His rival in the Aug. 27 runoff is Bill Waller Jr., a retired chief justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court.

“This is about conservatives versus liberals,” Reeves, 45, told reporters Wednesday at his campaign headquarters. “I respect Justice Waller. He is a good man, but he is not a conservative.”

In a separate news conference at his own campaign office, Waller said Wednesday that Reeves glosses over problems. Waller, 67, said Mississippi has a “dysfunctional” system with one of the highest-paid state superintendents of education in the U.S. and some of the lowest-paid teachers. Waller also described the state’s standardized testing for high school students as a “bridge to nowhere.”

“He says that everything is fine with education,” Waller said of Reeves. “And, the facts are, we have over a thousand teacher vacancies.”

Mississippi’s fourth-term attorney general, Jim Hood, easily defeated seven low-budget candidates Tuesday to win the Democratic primary for governor. Hood received about 69% of the primary vote. He hopes to break the grip Republicans have held on the governorship for 16 years in the conservative Southern state.

During a news conference Wednesday at a school in Jackson, Hood said he will push to increase teachers’ salaries and to expand state-funded preschool programs.

Hood, 57, said he has spoken to teachers who are upset about what he called a “penny-ante” pay raise that lawmakers approved this election year. He said Reeves and other Republican leaders have bragged about students’ reading scores increasing even as they criticize teachers.

“Dissing the teachers has really invigorated them, I think,” Hood said.

In Tuesday’s three-person Republican primary, Reeves received about 49% to Waller’s 33%. The rest went to first-term state Rep. Robert Foster.

Both Waller and Foster said Mississippi should consider increasing the gasoline tax to pay for highway improvements, in exchange for reducing or eliminating the income tax. They both also said Mississippi should allow working poor people to purchase Medicaid coverage, which would require federal approval.

Reeves says he opposes increasing the gasoline tax, and he is against adding people to Medicaid, a federal-state health insurance program for the needy.

Medicaid expansion to the working poor is an option under the federal health law that then-President Barack Obama signed in 2010. Mississippi is among the 14 states that have rejected expansion.

Hood says Mississippi has lost billions of dollars by not expanding Medicaid and that’s causing financial peril for rural hospitals. He says if he’s elected governor, he will push for expansion. Hood also says Mississippi needs to spend more on highways, but he hasn’t offered a specific proposal to generate money.

Mississippi, Kentucky and Louisiana are the only states electing governors this year.

Reeves has raised millions more dollars than anybody in the governor’s race and he’s endorsed by Republican Gov. Phil Bryant, who is term-limited.

In addition to the Republican and Democratic nominees, Mississippi’s Nov. 5 ballot for governor will have a Constitution Party candidate, Bob Hickingbottom, and an independent candidate, David Singletary.

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Follow Emily Wagster Pettus: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus .

Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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