By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – Just like the weather, the race to replace Haley Barbour as the state’s 64th governor is heating up.
Both leading Republican candidates – Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant and Gulf Coast businessman Dave Dennis – are tapping into their sizable campaign war chests for television ads. And candidates are crisscrossing the state, vying for votes for the Aug. 2 party primaries with hopes of advancing to the Nov. 8 general election.
On the Democratic side, Clarksdale businessman/attorney Bill Luckett would be considered the favorite, based on available funds to wage the summer campaign, but some believe Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny DuPree could be poised for an upset.
Other candidates competing in the party primaries with less funds and less name recognition are, on the Republican side, small business owner Ron Williams of Moss Point, Pearl River County Supervisor Hudson Holliday and Tea Party activist James Broadwater of Byram.
On the Democratic side, the additional candidates are former Yalobusha County Tax Assessor Guy Dale Shaw and William Bond Compton of Meridian.
The Republican and Democrat who win a majority vote in the primary will advance to the Nov. 8 general election where there are third-party candidates waiting.
The two party primary elections will be waged differently. While the Republican primary has grown significantly in recently elections, the votes are still concentrated in about a dozen large, primarily suburban counties, such as Rankin, DeSoto, Lamar and Madison and in other counties with relatively large Mississippi towns, such as Lee and Lauderdale.
“You can pretty much click off those counties, said Marty Wiseman, director of the Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University. “The Republicans count on those counties.”
But Wiseman said the Republican Party is becoming less concentrated in a few large counties as candidates expand their base to have significant reach in most of the 82 counties.
The Democrats’ votes are more spread out.
“There are pretty much Democratic voters all over the state,” Wiseman said. “You see a lot of Democratic voters, but they are about as disorganized and independent as anything I have ever seen.
“It is typical of the state party.”
Bryant, who has served stints in the state House, as auditor and is in his first term as lieutenant governor, is considered the heavy favorite to win not only the primary, but also the November general election.
He touts his experience.
“I’ve worked closely with Gov. Haley Barbour during these challenging economic times,” Bryant said earlier this year during his campaign announcement. “Together, we’ve worked to recruit new jobs, and also focused on being responsible with taxpayers’ dollars by not spending money we don’t have.”
Barbour, who is prevented from seeking re-election because of term limits, has not endorsed anyone for governor. As a general rule, Barbour will not get involved publicly in a Republican Party primary even though he knows both candidates well. Though Dennis has never sought office, he has been involved in state Republican Party politics for years.
Dennis, a Gulf Coast businessman, likes to point to Kirk Fordice, another party insider/businessman, who had never run for office before being elected governor in a upset in 1991.
The Dennis for Governor web page states, “When another Mississippi contractor – Kirk Fordice – announced his campaign for re-election as governor from Dave’s front yard on the Mississippi Coast, he said a candidate for office needs the experience of signing the front side of a payroll check. Dave has that experience.”
While Dennis might have the business experience thus far, Bryant has the fundraising edge. He has more than $2 million cash on hand, compared to $708,807 for Dennis, who has thus far infused $274,000 of his own money into the effort to win the election.
No other Republican candidate comes close to the two front-runners in terms of campaign contributions and expenditures. Holliday has spent $50,702 this year, based on the May 10 reports filed with the Secretary of State’s office on his campaign effort.
The other two candidates have spent significantly less. However, Williams has placed billboards throughout the state touting his campaign.
On the Democratic side, Luckett, the business partner of Academy Award-winning actor Morgan Freeman, has been working for more than a year to build support throughout the state.
Luckett has $518,526 cash on hand, based on the May 10 report, and has directed about $185,000 from various family business interests toward the campaign.
DuPree has raised $332,297 this year, including $52,162 from himself, and has cash on hand of $82,752.
Shaw reported spending $300 and Compton did not file a report.
Despite the sizable financial advantage for Luckett, many political observers believe DuPree will be a dangerous opponent. DuPree, who is black, is campaigning in a Democratic primary where black voters could represent a majority.
Wiseman said he believes black voters could be a majority, “but you can only do conjecture on that. It is hard to actually say.”
By the same token, Luckett has worked hard to build relationships in the black community and to garner their support.
A long, hot summer of campaigning will determine who advances to the November general election.