Drive through parts of Jackson where Bill Waller Jr. grew up and still lives, or even through parts of south Madison County, and it is not unusual to see signs touting his campaign for governor.

No doubt, Waller is a known commodity in much of the Jackson metro area. He served as a justice on the Mississippi Supreme Court for 21 years, 10 years as chief justice, being elected to the position by voters from the Central District.

But in terms of statewide name identification, Waller is at a decided disadvantage against fellow Republican and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who has run and won four statewide campaigns and has a far superior campaign war chest.

A third Republican gubernatorial candidate, freshman state Rep. Robert Foster of DeSoto County, is at an even larger disadvantage.

Both Waller and Foster are dutifully canvassing the state, trying to cut into Reeves’ name recognition advantage.

But politicians who have run statewide before say to do so takes money – a relatively large sum.

In 2007 Jamie Franks, a Lee County attorney, was a three-term state House member who was viewed as one of the better known members of the Legislature

He chose to take that experience and run for lieutenant governor against Phil Bryant, who had won two statewide elections for auditor.

Franks ran an aggressive campaign, but never could match the name identification of Bryant – much less get his message out on the issues.

“Just to do name ID even back 12 years was in excess of $1 million … It is going to cost more than $600,000,” Franks said, referring to the $580,000 Waller reported last week on his campaign finance reports.

“If Waller does not significantly increase his campaign fund raising, we will be looking at Tate Reeves as the Republican nominee,” Franks added.

Reeves had almost $7 million in his war chest to start the year and already is running television commercials. Waller and Foster, thus far, are trying to do it the old fashion way – retail politics, meeting people individually and trying to garner their votes. Even in a state the size of Mississippi, that is a tough roe to hoe.

But Waller and Foster do have an advantage that candidates even a few election cycles ago did not have – the internet and social media. Candidates being able to get their message out via social media evens the playing field to an extent.

Of course, older voters might remember Bill Waller’s father and namesake was elected for one term as governor in 1971.

Another advantage for Waller and Foster might be the layout of the Republican primary.

In 1991, little known Vicksburg contractor Kirk Fordice shocked the state’s political observers by first winning the Republican primary against establishment candidate Pete Johnson and then by upending incumbent Democratic Gov. Ray Mabus.

Much went into Fordice’s upset of Mabus. But the victory over Johnson was pretty simple to explain. Fordice won the Republican primary against Johnson with 31,753  votes – 17,165 of which came from three counties – Rankin, Hinds and Harrison. Now winning the Republican primary is more of a statewide endeavor. In 2015, 299,368 voted in the Democratic gubernatorial primary compared to 279,427 in the Republican primary.

This year could be the first time since the 1800s where more people vote in the Republican primary (in a state, not federal election) than in the Democratic primary.

But votes on the Republican side, much more so than on the Democratic side, are still concentrated in a few large counties, such as Rankin, Madison, DeSoto, Lauderdale, Harrison, Lee and a few others.

If Waller or Foster can garner that all important name identification in those counties, perhaps they will have a chance.

But to do so, Franks said they must create their own name recognition. 

Otherwise, Reeves with his superior funds, can create a negative narrative.

“All he needs to do is find one criminal Bill Waller voted to set free” as a member of the Supreme Court and make that a campaign ad, Franks said.

This column was produced by Mississippi Today, a nonprofit news organization that covers state government, public policy, politics and culture. 

BOBBY HARRISON  is Mississippi Today’s senior Capitol reporter.

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