Mississippi history shows interesting runoff results

By 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 was second in the runoff with 227,424 votes, 29.8 percent. Charles Sullivan led with 288,219, 37.8. 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 other hand, Tate Reeves was much closer to 50 percent than Charles Sullivan, 48.9 versus 37.8 percent.

The difference is that in 1971 there were five other candidates getting the remaining 32.4 percent of the vote, while in 2019 there was only one other candidate, Robert Foster, who got 17.7 percent of the vote.

It’s interesting to note that in 2019 the Republican gubernatiorial 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 contruction 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 candidates 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.

Certainly momentum goes in favor of Waller. Reeves had all the money and organization and institutional Republican Party support, so the very fact there is a runoff is perceived as a big win 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 annoited successor to Phil Bryant. Certainly, a Waller win would be an even bigger upset than his father’s upset in 1971.

Interestingly enough, the younger Waller was very active in his father’s campaign, even to the point of the Clarion-Ledger doing feature story on the younger Waller’s leadership role. Having gone through this process firsthand with his father, that’s sure to give Waller Jr. some inside information about how to make it happen.

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. That was also a case where Johnson was the perceived front runner who failed to win the primary and lost in the runoff to the unknown underdog.

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. Reeves is politically shrewd and with a big war chest, it would truly be David slaying Goliath for Waller to win.

In 1983, Bill Allain trailed Evelyn Gandy in the primary but won the runoff. Same situation with William Winter in 1979 who also beat Gandy in the runoff. In 1975, Cliff Finch trailed Winter significantly and then almost doubled his vote in the runoff.

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 to 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.

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