Talk of a possible Speaker Gunn for Governor campaign raises eyebrows with some House Republicans.

Rank and file members of the Mississippi House, along with their fellow Mississippians, have been watching from afar as the political back-and-forth has publicly boiled over the last two years between Speaker Philip Gunn and Governor Tate Reeves. While there is still a thin public veneer of civility, episodically, tensions have escalated to the point where both Republicans seem to wield their influence in tit-for-tat political skirmishes.

Speaker Gunn’s attempts to politically outflank Governor Reeves with the Republican base has fueled open speculation that he may jump in the 2023 gubernatorial Republican primary against Reeves. As Daily Journal Executive Editor Sam Hall wrote in his Op-Ed on Sunday, Gunn is sending some not so subtle hints that he is at least considering a primary challenge of Reeves. 

In an off-session statewide speaking tour couched as selling his income tax elimination plan, Gunn has denied it. On several occasions, he’s answered the question head on by saying, “Right now, I’m only running for Speaker of the House,” or some other variation thereof. Yet, the speculation increases by the day. When asked for comment for this piece, Gunn did not respond.

Now the question is: What will even the speculation of a gubernatorial “loser leave town” primary between Gunn and Reeves do to the political dynamics over the last two legislative sessions of this term?

Since taking the Speaker’s gavel in 2011, Philip Gunn has been tremendously effective under the Capitol Dome in corralling members. His standing supermajority was built by both electing Republicans in swing districts and convincing Democrats to switch parties. As such, he has always had to walk a fine line and pick his battles to keep his troops in step.

House Democrats in Gunn’s chamber have far greater access and influence than Republicans ever did under former Democrat Speaker Billy McCoy. This has allowed Gunn to be able to count on Democrats when he has needed them on consequential votes.

With the loss of longtime House members in recent years like Mark Baker, Greg Snowden, Mark Formby, Andy Gipson and Herb Frierson – all with tremendous institutional knowledge – Gunn’s inner circle has shrunk dramatically, and there’s definitely a “new guard” in the catbird seat.  Speaker Pro Tem Jason White and House Ways and Means Chairman Trey Lamar carry the lion’s share of political capital with Gunn, and both are certainly top lieutenants in the internecine skirmishes with Governor Reeves and even, at times, with Lt. Governor Delbert Hosemann.

But not everything is rosy in the House. There is some dissatisfaction in the ranks.

Nearly a dozen Republican House members, speaking off record for fear of reprisal, believe the Speaker is listening to the wrong voices, arguing that the lower chamber’s leadership has given too much bargaining power to the Democrats. Gunn’s closeness to Democrats has some GOP members grousing over having their more conservative policy bills blackballed as to “not make the Democrats mad.”

Last summer, much to the chagrin of some of his Republican members, Gunn, along with his Pro Tem, sued Reeves over the Governor’s vetoes related to certain funding of projects. Gunn lost.  Since then, the Speaker has repeatedly tried to appear as if he is to the Governor’s political right on pandemic related issues, publicly calling out the Governor before Reeves has issued a statement on his planned course of action. A prime example of this was seen in last week’s urging by Gunn to end the state of emergency over COVID which expired that weekend. Reeves responded by noting the need to ensure the National Guard troops assisting in the pandemic efforts were being paid. The Governor then set a future date for when the declaration would end. 

Dr. Nathan Shrader, Associate Professor of Government and Politics at Millsaps College, says the prospect of a Governor Reeves versus Speaker Gunn showdown for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in 2023 has both long-term and short-term implications for the Mississippi Republican Party as well for the upcoming legislative sessions in 2022 and 2023.

“The possibility of such a challenge from the Speaker of the House may cause the continued decline among legislative-executive branch relations, but it may also cause both men to find areas where they an simultaneously score political and policy victories, particularly on core conservative priorities, in order to enhance their resumes with voters in a gubernatorial primary,” Shrader opined.

Polling has consistently shown that Republican voters in the state are generally pleased with the job Governor Reeves has done since taking office, particularly on pandemic related issues. Even left-leaning polling like that seen in Millsaps/Chism State of the State Surveys show that less than a quarter of Mississippi Republicans disapprove of Reeves’ performance as Governor. 

“Meanwhile, Speaker Gunn has not faced the statewide electorate while Reeves has done so consistently and successfully for years,” Shrader noted. “The June State of the State Survey also found that nearly half of Mississippi voters – including a slight plurality of Republicans – disapproves of the Legislature, which Gunn will inevitably be intimately linked to in any future statewide campaign.” 

As intriguing as it would be for Speaker Gunn to challenge Governor Reeves in 2023, Dr. Shrader says he does not suspect this will prove to be a serious electoral threat to the incumbent Governor should he pursue a second Republican nomination for the seat. He adds that Reeves “hasn’t done anything that could be perceived as heresy among the Republican primary electorate.”

Of the possible candidates currently lurking in the background for what will likely be some sort of primary challenge for Reeves in 2023, Gunn’s is by far the most credible – if it materializes. The Bill Wallers and Robert Fosters will not have the same impact with an incumbent in the race. Gunn only technically represents one House district and does not have the name ID advantage of appearing on multiple statewide ballots. However, he does have the title of Speaker. He would have to be able to parlay that distinction into raising the $4-5 million dollars at a minimum needed to take on a well-funded incumbent Governor. That is likely an uphill battle.

Such intraparty squabbling in the House and between a Republican Speaker and Republican Governor, while growing increasingly louder around steakhouse dinners in Jackson, could be dismissed as sheer personality differences if not for the fact that members in Gunn’s own caucus are quietly brooding about what rumors of his future aspirations do to the legislative agenda in the near term. Many fear that an “up top” dynamic of Gunn running invites even more acrimony in an already contentious relationship.

During the 2015 and 2019 elections, Republicans seemed to hold it together pretty well, defending seats and making gains, mostly in unison. Governing has been a different story, however.  While Republicans have undoubtedly achieved a number of legislative goals in recent years, some of the “big” policy changes that theoretically conservatives should be on board with remain elusive. That is largely because the Speaker, the Governor and the Lt. Governor cannot seem to get on the same page.

Now, populist flashpoint issues like Medical Marijuana and replacing Mississippi’s initiative process, that are squarely Republican issues to fix, will likely invite more attention than ever on the disjointed relationship between Gunn and Reeves.

As one Republican lawmaker in the House said, members are now forced to either stay in the good graces of the Speaker to save their own bills or invite the ire of the Governor who has the ability to fundraise either for or against them come 2023. 

Given that Reeves has not done much to endear himself to House members on the whole, Gunn would likely have support from most all of his caucus members, at least behind the scenes.  But members might still have to pay a price for being caught in the political back and forth for two full years before that election in 2023, and perhaps longer if a Gunn run fell flat.

One Republican House member said the current operating environment in the House is akin to the last term of former Speaker Billy McCoy, which was widely panned by Republicans before they won the majority for the first time in over 100 years, where only a select few had a seat at the table. “It’s Billy McCoy 2.0,” another Republican House member said, characterizing Gunn and his top lieutenants as the gatekeepers who “actually run the House and who just want to watch Tate Reeves fail.”

Whether Gunn runs for Governor in 2023 against Reeves or if this is nothing more than leverage building during a slow summer news cycle will flesh itself out in the months ahead.

One thing is for certain – Gunn’s name being mentioned for Governor will put pressure on his caucus members to choose sides, and that dynamic will complicate conservative policy debates over the next two legislative sessions.