JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves barely acknowledges his two challengers in next week’s Republican primary — a clear indication that he expects to secure his party’s nomination.
Reeves is already focusing his energy on defeating Brandon Presley, a utility regulator who is unopposed for the Democratic nomination. Reeves brings the power of incumbency, but Democrats are hoping the cousin of rock legend Elvis Presley can break Republicans’ 20-year hold on the governorship.
Reeves’ Republican primary opponents, Dr. John Witcher and David Grady Hardigree, have never held public office. Reeves has won five statewide campaigns since 2003 — two for treasurer, two for lieutenant governor and one for governor.
Unseating any governor is difficult, and the task is even larger when the incumbent has a hefty campaign fund. Reeves is sitting on more than $9 million, while Witcher has spent about $64,000 and Hardigree has spent less than $800.
Witcher, 57, is a physician who founded Mississippi Against Mandates, a group that opposes vaccine mandates and promotes the narrative that COVID-19 vaccinations can be harmful — a position refuted by scientists.
Hardigree, 63, is a military veteran who says God called him to run for governor.
Both criticize Reeves, 49, for signing a law in 2020 to retire the last state flag in the U.S. that included the Confederate battle emblem. The change came during a nationwide racial reckoning after police in Minneapolis killed George Floyd, one of several incidents nationally in which aggressive behavior by police officers ignited protests.
Reeves said for years that if Mississippi were to change the flag, it should only be done by a statewide election. But once it became clear that legislators had enough votes to retire the flag even over a governor’s veto, Reeves said he would sign a law specifying the Confederate symbol was out and a new flag would include the phrase “In God We Trust.”
A commission designed a new flag with a magnolia, and the law required a yes-or-no vote on whether to accept the new design. By a wide margin, voters in November 2020 said yes.
In separate interviews with The Associated Press, Hardigree and Witcher both said voters — not legislators and the governor — should have decided whether to keep the Confederate-themed flag.
“People all across Mississippi felt like that they wanted to vote,” Witcher said.
Hardigree said he’s talked to “a lot of disgruntled folks about the way the flag was handled.”
Reeves’ campaign manager, Elliott Husbands, did not respond to questions about positions taken by Reeves’ GOP primary opponents. And when candidates recently spoke at one of the largest political gatherings of this election year, Reeves did not mention Hardigree or Witcher.
Hardigree said he heard the divine call to run for governor more than 20 years ago but the time wasn’t right until this year.
“You don’t realize until you look back that God was already orchestrating the path that I needed to take,” Hardigree said.
Hardigree said he wants to eliminate Mississippi’s 7% grocery tax — a position that matches Presley’s platform. Reeves has called for elimination of the state income tax.
Witcher said Reeves has not shown enough loyalty to former President Donald Trump, even though Trump campaigned for Reeves in 2019 and Reeves has often praised the former president.
Witcher said he and his wife attended Trump’s rally in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021, where Trump said he believed the 2020 election had been stolen.
“It was a very peaceful movement, parading along, singing, praying, gospel songs, whatever, flag waving, etc. And that’s all we saw,” Witcher said. “When we got close to the Capitol, we turned north to go to our hotel room because we had to use the bathroom. So we got to a hotel room and turned on the TV and watched the rest of it.”
Witcher said Reeves set too many precautions during the pandemic and was too deferential to the state health officer, who urged people to get vaccinated and wear masks.
Reeves issued temporary mask mandates before vaccinations were widely available and after vaccinations were first offered. But by July 2021, Reeves said a federal recommendation for masks indoors was “foolish” and had “nothing to do with rational science.” In 2022, Reeves signed a law saying government agencies cannot withhold services or refuse jobs to people who choose not to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
Mississippi primaries are Tuesday, and candidates must receive at least 50% of the vote to avoid an Aug. 29 runoff. The general election is Nov. 7, with runoffs Nov. 28. An independent candidate for governor, Gwendolyn Gray, will be on the ballot in November with Presley and the Republican nominee.