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Foster, Waller set for 1st GOP debate for Mississippi gov

The first Republican debate of the 2019 Mississippi gubernatorial race is taking place without the candidate who has raised the most money.

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves of Flowood declined an invitation from the Mississippi State University College Republicans for the Tuesday evening debate on campus in Starkville. The two other Republicans running for governor, state Rep. Robert Foster of Hernando and former Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice Bill Waller Jr. of Jackson, will be there.

Reeves’ campaign spokesman Parker Briden originally said Reeves would be busy with the legislative session, where he presides over the state Senate. The session was scheduled to run through this week, but it ended Friday.

“We let them know a while ago that any debate around the legislative session was never going to work for the lieutenant governor,” Briden said. “We’re looking forward to debating the issues in this race and we expect that we will get the chance to do that many times across the state. This one just didn’t work.”

MSU College Republicans said in a statement that it initially reached out to Reeves’ campaign staff in early February to discuss whether he would take part in a debate. After the university told the group what date the debate would happen, the club again contacted the Reeves campaign.

“We were told that he would not be able to attend due to the legislative session, but we continued to make preparations in case the session ended early and he was able to attend,” the club said Monday. “We contacted his office again on Friday to inquire about his availability, and he did not indicate that he’d be attending.”

Party primaries are Aug. 6, and the general election is Nov. 5.

The current governor, Republican Phil Bryant, cannot seek a third term.

Nine Democrats are seeking their party’s nomination for governor. The current attorney general, Jim Hood, has raised the most money among the Democrats, with just over $1 million on hand at the end of 2018.

The most recent campaign finance reports were filed at the end of January, showing fundraising through 2018. Reeves had $6.3 million in two campaign funds and Foster had $12,297. Waller retired from the Supreme Court early this year. He started his gubernatorial campaign fund in late February and has not yet had to file a report showing how much money he has raised.