JACKSON, Miss. (Mississippi Today) – He’s been crisscrossing the state for months meeting with local leaders. He’s on track to have $1 million in his campaign coffer this year. He’s taking jabs at Gov. Tate Reeves at every opportunity.
Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn sure shows all the signs of someone strongly considering a gubernatorial run in 2023.
It hasn’t gone unnoticed. A potential internecine GOP battle between Gunn and Reeves has become the buzz of the summer among Mississippi politicos. They appear to be split between calling it a fool’s errand or a golden opportunity to oust an incumbent known more for creating enemies and strong-arming campaign donors than pushing policy and building consensus.
Asked directly about whether he would run in 2023, Gunn told Mississippi Today: “My focus is doing a good job as speaker of the House. I’m traveling the state talking about what we are trying to accomplish legislatively. I do not know what the future holds.”
Note he did not say he isn’t considering a run.
Modern history shows unseating an incumbent governor — especially a Republican — in a primary is a difficult task and a rare occurrence nationwide. The governor in Mississippi is de facto head of the state party, and by custom picks their own party chairman, which Reeves has done. Big money campaign donors are typically reluctant to switch horses midstream.
Gunn, 58, is said to be receiving encouragement to run from many powerful quarters, but so far, those quarters are hesitant to say so publicly. Several declined to speak on the record with Mississippi Today about a possible Gunn challenge.
Reeves, 47, should have every tailwind as the incumbent. But over two terms as lieutenant governor and half a term as governor, Reeves has shown a penchant for hacking people off, even fellow Republican leaders and his own loyalists. He himself has chalked this up to, “I know how to say no to my friends.”
Political acrimony between Gunn and Reeves goes back to early in their first terms as speaker and lieutenant governor, respectively. It reached perhaps a fever pitch in last year’s fight over control of spending of federal COVID-19 relief spending. Gunn accused Reeves of “cheap theatrics and false personal attacks.” Reeves warned that “people will die” because the Legislature wouldn’t let him control the money.
If Gunn were to make a gubernatorial run, he’d have to get cracking early. Despite three terms as House speaker — the third-longest run in state history — Gunn lacks name recognition. The speaker is typically not a household name despite the power they wield at the Capitol.
But as many politicos say, one can buy name recognition with enough campaign cash and media. That would bring Gunn’s first clear-and-present challenge: to raise $3 million to $4 million for a serious primary challenge against an incumbent known for his fundraising prowess.
Gunn would have to be fundraising now — and it appears he is — in order to make a gubernatorial run even a possibility. He would need to make his personal decision by the end of this year or early 2022 to begin quietly convincing movers and shakers who want a change to back him. He would likely need to make a public announcement and begin public campaigning by late summer or early fall of 2022 to build momentum and name recognition.