By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – In terms of the emergence of the Republican Party as a force in state politics, it seems Phil Bryant has always been there, part of the effort.
He was among a handful of Republicans in the state House in 1992, was appointed auditor by Republican Gov. Kirk Fordice in 1996 and was elected to the post in 1999 – the only Republican to win one of the eight statewide offices that cycle.
After capturing the Republican gubernatorial primary Tuesday with a convincing 59 percent of the vote, the former law enforcement officer appears poised to win the November general election. He will be the heavy favorite, regardless of who wins the Aug. 23 Democratic runoff between Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny DuPree and Clarksdale attorney-businessman Bill Luckett.
It seemed pre-determined from the time Bryant won the lieutenant governor’s office in 2007 that he would run in 2011 to replace Haley Barbour, who is constitutionally prohibited from seeking a third term as governor. Some say Bryant started running for governor the day he was sworn in as lieutenant governor.
“He has been very loyal to the party,” said Jim Herring of Canton, former chair of the state Republican Party and a Bryant supporter in the primary. “…He has forged relationships over a long period of time within the party.”
Herring added, “As lieutenant governor, he was skilled, was respectful of the governor and showed good leadership qualities. He stood for Republican ideas.”
In every sense, Bryant was the Republican Party establishment candidate. Others who could have wrestled at least a little of that mantle from him – Treasurer Tate Reeves and Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann – made some noise as if they were running for governor, but in the end opted not to challenge Bryant.
“A proven Republican in the primary would have absolutely made it a horse race,” said Marty Wiseman, director of the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute of Government. Whether a proven Republican could have defeated Bryant is debatable, Wiseman admitted.
But in the end, Bryant’s main challenger was Dave Dennis, a successful Gulf Coast commercial contractor, who had never run for office but who had been active in Republican Party politics. Dennis touted his business experience and his impressive involvement in various community and state volunteer organizations. Coupled with that, he tried to paint Bryant as a career politician.
But in the end, Dennis’ lack of name identification and Bryant’s money advantage proved to be too much for Dennis to overcome. Bryant spent more than $3.1 million, or about $2 million more than Dennis.
“Name ID and enough money to prop up that ID are huge,” Wiseman said.
In essence, Wiseman said Bryant had it easy.
“He kept on looking around seeing where the fire was coming from,” Wiseman said. “It was kind of like walking through a bad neighborhood and looking around to see who was shooting and nobody was.
“He kind of had it made, but he did not overplay his hand.”
Wiseman added, “He had the good fortune of not having to run against a strong field.”
Dennis tried to use the model of his friend, Kirk Fordice, a business leader who defeated career politicians to win the Mississippi governorship in the 1990s. But Fordice was able to take advantage of the force of his personality to win a Republican primary where less than 65,000 people voted. More than 280,000 Mississippians voted in the Republican primary Tuesday. Then in the general election, Fordice defeated incumbent Ray Mabus, who had high negatives and had been beaten up in his own primary by challenger Wayne Dowdy.
Dennis also tried to remind voters that in 2010, Southern states, such as Alabama and Florida, chose business leaders over “career politicians” for governor. And indeed, throughout the nation, several Republican establishment candidates were upended in 2010 by Tea Party favorites.
But while those establishment Republicans were losing, Bryant, who did not run in 2010 thanks to Mississippi’s off-year election cycle, was courting the Tea Party by pushing such items as state enforcement against illegal immigration.
“Phil is a good politician,” Herring said. “But on the other hand, I think most of our people knew what he stood for. He has been consistent over a long period of time. He is a conservative.”
And Herring said in Mississippi, in general terms, the Tea Party and the state Republican Party have been on the same page.
“We are blessed the Tea Party and the Republicans are pretty much together,” Herring said “They are not fighting each other.”
It seemed nobody was willing to pick much of a fight with Phil Bryant in the Republican primary.
It is questionable whether a Democrat will be able to in November.