HERNANDO — Gov. Tate Reeves rolled up in his blacked-out SUV to a DeSoto County church earlier this month to meet with conservative voters who felt uninspired about his first term in office.
The closed-door meeting, held in a traditionally GOP stronghold county where Reeves earned 61% of the vote last election, provided some of those voters a chance to quiz the governor about his decisions the past few years and his ideas for the future. But importantly, it offered the governor an opportunity to mend relationships with members of a critical voting bloc he must win over to be reelected in November.
Reeves, in a chaotic first term in the Governor’s Mansion, has regularly drawn criticism from right-wing Republicans — voters he’ll need support from to win reelection in November. Their list of frustrations with the governor has grown quite extensive.
First, he issued mask mandates and partial business lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic, a move medical experts recommended but voters in the right wing of the party thought was unnecessary and a ploy to force the government’s will on the people.
Next, after years of promises to let voters decide whether to change the state flag, the last in the nation containing the Confederate battle emblem, Reeves gave a half-hearted apology to his uber-conservative supporters before signing a bill that furled the old flag for good.
And perhaps most relevant to this bloc of voters today, Reeves mostly rode the fence in the 2023 Republican primary for lieutenant governor, when longtime conservative icon Chris McDaniel was challenging Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, the Republican incumbent who many conservatives panned as a Democrat in disguise. Hosemann eventually won that bitter race, and right-wing conservatives lost their leader in McDaniel.
Reeves, first elected to statewide office in 2003, was not a product of the Tea Party movement like McDaniel, and now that the Jones County legislator isn’t appearing on the November ballot, it could give the far-right bloc a reason to stay home on Election Day. Low turnout among that base of Republican voters could spell disaster for Reeves, who faces a formidable challenge from Democrat Brandon Presley on Nov. 7.
Inside the closed-door meeting at The Summit Church on Oct. 2, a handful of conservative voters quizzed Reeves on his track record and other issues. Don Abernathy, one of the meeting’s organizers, told Mississippi Today that Reeves was there to meet with so-called “McDaniel conservatives” to energize far-right voters ahead of the November election.
“The purpose was to get some of those people in a room with the governor,” Abernathy said. “People, of course, are going to get disenfranchised a bit after going through a bitter primary like we had.”
One attendee, according to Abernathy, asked the governor a question about the former state flag at the meeting, though he said the flag was not a major component of the event and couldn’t remember how the governor responded to the question.
“The guy who asked the question said he wasn’t upset about the new flag — he was just upset about the process that replaced it,” Abernathy said.
Other discussed topics in the meeting, Abernathy said, included medical marijuana, the state income tax and how Reeves would work with the supermajority of Republicans in the House and Senate — all major priorities for the ultraconservative faction.
Clifton Carroll, a Reeves spokesman, said in a statement that the governor is traveling all over the state and meeting with a “wide range of Mississippians who are worried that Brandon Presley has sold out our state to get $10 million from out of state liberals to run his campaign.”
It’s unclear what $10 million figure Carroll is referencing, and he didn’t answer questions asking how the governor responded to the question about the state flag or if the governor felt like he had a positive relationship with the far right faction.
But with the election less than a month away — and with some polling indicating Reeves is still under the 50% mark — the governor must feel some urgency to boost enthusiasm among conservative voters.
In an interview this week with Mississippi Today, McDaniel said that he believes conservative voters are generally dissatisfied, but he chalks it up to the “strange political environment we’re in” nationally and in the state, not specifically about Reeves or any other candidate.
“I am supporting the Republican in the race, obviously,” McDaniel said of the November election. “As far as any official endorsement or anything, Gov. Reeves and I have not discussed that. The last time I talked with him was about three weeks ago.”
Less than a month from the Nov. 7 election, though, Reeves’ schedule is revealing. He’s waited weeks to announce plans to participate in a televised debate with Presley, and he waited months to unveil a plan to address financial woes with Mississippi’s hospitals.
Instead, the first-term governor has spent time trying to shore up support among a conservative base that suffered a stinging defeat during the August Republican primary.
The pressing questions now are: Will those voters turn out, and how badly could it hurt Reeves if they stay home?
“There is an overall unease about everything,” McDaniel said. “There’s some dissatisfaction out there, but not necessarily with him but just the political climate … There is a chance that could equate to lower turnout (of conservative voters). Low turnout would be trouble for everyone. Our models are usually based on having good turnout.”
Mississippi Today reporter Geoff Pender contributed to this report.
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