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Top GOP counties could split

The road to the Republican nomination for statewide offices in Mississippi runs through a few conservative communities. In a largely rural state of just under 3 million residents, Republican candidates’ strategy is usually to seek support in a short list of vote-rich counties and to pad out a winning margin with additional votes from counties with smaller populations.

Two of the Republicans running for governor in 2019 come from the strongest GOP counties. Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves is from Rankin County in the central part of the state, and state Rep. Robert Foster is from DeSoto County up north.

There’s no guarantee each will win the place he lives, but home turf is an advantage. Foster’s presence in the race will force Reeves to spend money and energy in northern Mississippi while also trying to line up support in GOP strongholds along the Gulf Coast.

Reeves has not announced his candidacy, but for several years he clearly has had his eyes on becoming governor.

The 44-year-old Reeves is entering the final year of his second term as lieutenant governor after serving two terms as state treasurer — a job he won as a political newcomer in 2003 when he was just 29 years old.

Reeves was sitting on a $5.4 million campaign fund at the end of 2017. The next round of campaign finance reports, due by Jan. 31, will show how much he has collected since then. He is the clear front-runner in fundraising for a race that will be wide open because the current governor, Republican Phil Bryant, cannot seek a third term.

Reeves grew up in and still lives in the Jackson suburb of Rankin County, which has been one of Mississippi’s most reliably Republican areas the past two decades.

Foster, a first-term state House member from Hernando, announced his gubernatorial campaign Dec. 11, calling himself a “conservative outsider.” The 35-year-old Foster grew up in DeSoto County and still lives there.

DeSoto is just south of Memphis, Tennessee, and for years it has been Mississippi’s fastest-growing county. It is also one of the biggest places for Republican candidates to seek votes in the quest for statewide office.

The first Republican to enter the 2019 governor’s race was Petal Mayor Hal Marx, 50, who announced his intention in May. Marx was elected in 2009 in the city that now has about 10,600 residents. Petal is in southern Mississippi’s Forrest County, which leans Republican but is smaller than Rankin or DeSoto.

DeSoto County has more than 178,000 residents, compared to just over 152,000 in Rankin County and about 75,500 in Forrest County.

Other population centers important to winning a Republican nomination are the Jackson suburb of Madison County, coastal Jackson and Harrison counties, northeastern Mississippi’s Lee County, and eastern Mississippi’s Lauderdale County.

The last time Mississippi had a governor’s race without an incumbent was in 2011. Five candidates sought the Republican nomination. Bryant had served one term as lieutenant governor after being state auditor nearly 12 years. His closest challenger for the nomination for governor was Gulf Coast businessman Dave Dennis. Bryant had his strongest showings in Rankin and DeSoto counties, while Dennis did best in his home county, Harrison.

Candidates’ qualifying deadline is in March, party primaries are in August, and the general election is in November.

Four-term Attorney General Jim Hood has already announced as a Democrat for governor, as has retired Jackson State University employee Velesha P. Williams. Others could seek the nomination. Democrats running statewide need a broad ground game in counties with lots of local Democrats also on the ballot. It’s important to do well in Hinds County, which is home of the state capital of Jackson and has the largest population of any county in the state.

Emily Wagster Pettus has covered Mississippi government and politics since 1994. Follow her on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus.