Mississippi primaries narrow the list of governor candidates

Local Elections

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi residents turned out in the summer heat Tuesday to vote in party primaries, narrowing the list of Democratic and Republican candidates for governor.

The state’s four-term attorney general Jim Hood was seeking to defeat seven lesser-known candidates in the Democratic primary for governor and break the grip Republicans have held on the office for 24 of the past 28 years.

Mississippi is one of only three states electing a governor this year. Louisiana and Kentucky are the others. Second-term Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves is endorsed by Republican Gov. Phil Bryant, who cannot seek a third term, and he’s raised millions more than any of his GOP rivals.

Voters are weighing whether the GOP should retain its lock on the governor’s office amid questions about the future economic direction of the conservative Southern state.

At a precinct in the Jackson suburb of Ridgeland, retired teacher Sara Caldwell, 88, said she voted in the Republican primary, choosing former Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Bill Waller Jr. over Reeves for governor. She said Waller seems to have a more detailed plan to pay for highway improvements: Waller has said the state should consider increasing the gasoline tax, while Reeves opposes that.

Caldwell’s daughter lives near the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and Caldwell has had to take a longer route to drive there the past two years because a bridge on a state highway has been closed. She said she’s not thrilled about paying a higher gas tax. “But, if that is what it takes, I’ll do it,” Caldwell said. “We desperately need some roads and bridges.”

At a polling place in Picayune, Kathy Burke, 66, said Reeves’ support of President Donald Trump was a key factor in her decision.

“I like what’s happening and Reeves seems to be a staunch supporter of him,” Burke said.

Reeves argues Mississippi government is on sound financial footing under GOP leadership. Hood faults Republicans for not expanding Medicaid to the working poor and says they’ve spent too little on schools and highways.

Adam Wells, 34, is a former teacher who’s now an education consultant. At a precinct in Canton, Wells said he voted for Hood.

“I think he’s the only shot the Democrats have to beat Tate Reeves,” Wells said. “It will be very difficult to do that, and he’s the only Democrat in the race to hold a statewide office.”

For most of the campaign, Reeves largely ignored his two Republican primary rivals: Waller, whose father was the state’s Democratic governor from 1972 to 1976, and first-term state Rep. Robert Foster. Instead Reeves criticized Hood, calling him too liberal for Mississippi.

“Our political enemy is the liberal policy ideas of the party of Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and Jim Hood,” Reeves said last week.

Hood challenged that: “When they start talking about labels and not about issues, there’s something going on there, and it’s something that you need to look through.”

Hood says Mississippi has lost billions of federal dollars by being among the 14 states that have not expanded Medicaid, which is an option under the federal health overhaul that then-President Barack Obama signed in 2010.

Winning a primary requires a majority of the votes. If runoffs are needed, they will be Aug. 27.

Waller hopes to force Reeves into a runoff. His campaign slogan, “the conservative Republican who can win in November,” plays on the idea that Reeves has made enemies with a heavy-handed style of guiding state lawmaking as lieutenant governor. He suggests that Reeves could be vulnerable to Hood, who has won crossover votes in heavily Republican parts of the state.

Foster raised the least money on the Republican side. He received national attention last month after saying he would not let a female reporter ride with him in his truck to report on his campaign unless she were chaperoned by a male colleague.

Two of Hood’s rivals with strong ties in the vote-rich metro Jackson area are Robert Shuler Smith, who’s wrapping up his third term as district attorney in the state’s largest county, and Velesha P. Williams, a military veteran and retired administrator at Jackson State University.

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Associated Press Writer Kevin McGill contributed from Picayune, Mississippi.

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

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