LLOYD GRAY: Barbour gives way to scramble for succession

By Lloyd Gray / NEMS Daily Journal

With each passing day and public appearance, Haley Barbour is talking and acting more and more like a man running for president. In any case, he won’t be governor beyond January of next year, and while the race to succeed him has been under way for quite a while, it is starting to kick into high gear.
The state Senate’s passage of Arizona-style immigration legislation last week, at the urging of Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, constitutes the first major assault of the campaign. Interestingly, Barbour – who is widely believed not to be especially excited about the prospect of Bryant as a successor – wasn’t enthusiastic about the legislation, and in recent interviews has taken a much less hard-line position on immigration. (See above: talking like a presidential candidate.)
But the bill and certainly the sentiment behind it will be a centerpiece of Bryant’s 2011 campaign. He’s made that clear.
Bryant begins this campaign as the odds-on favorite. Early odds-on favorites don’t always win, of course, and there is still plenty of time for someone else to surge forward. Of the other three announced Republican candidates, the most likely to give Bryant a strong challenge is Dave Dennis, the Gulf Coast businessman and civic leader. Others in the GOP race are Hudson Holliday, a Pearl River County supervisor and former brigadier general in the Mississippi National Guard, and James Broadwater, a state employee from Byram.
Holliday has already publicly conceded the money advantage to Bryant and Dennis, but he says he will wage a different campaign designed to avoid big-donor influences. Yet political reality still works against candidates who don’t have a lot of money.
Dennis will offer a contrast to Bryant: a business leader versus a career law enforcement officer and elected official, and Dennis will emphasize his background as better preparation for the role of the state’s chief executive and economic developer. Dennis will likely come off sounding a bit more moderate than Bryant, which will be as much a disadvantage in some quarters as it will be an advantage in others.
While Dennis is not the archetype anti-government conservative who has upset Republican incumbents elsewhere, it will be intriguing to watch whether Bryant’s high-profile incumbency of recent years has any drawbacks in this era of anti-incumbent backlash. Bryant’s close attention to Tea Party groups in Mississippi and general sympathy with their aims should minimize much of that.
The only way Bryant loses a Republican primary is if enough people decide they want a completely fresh face, or – and this is unlikely – Bryant’s folksy, cowboy boots countenance begins to wear thin.
So the forecast at this point is, mostly Bryant with a chance of Dennis. As with all forecasts, this one is subject to change.
On the Democratic side, an intriguing matchup awaits. Clarksdale lawyer-businessman Bill Luckett, who like Dennis has never held elective office, was the first entry but has been joined by Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny DuPree, who in addition to his 10 years as mayor served more than nine years as a Forrest County supervisor.
Luckett is white, DuPree is black. In years past that would make Luckett the favorite in a statewide race. But for the first time in 2007, black voters cast a slight majority of the ballots in the Democratic primary, and that trend is likely to continue as more white local candidates go over to the Republicans and the hottest statewide races are on the GOP side.
In 2003, Gary Anderson became the first black candidate in modern times to win a party nomination for statewide office in his ultimately unsuccessful race for treasurer, then won the Democratic primary in 2007 for insurance commissioner. DuPree, a real estate broker by profession who has served as president of the Mississippi Municipal League, has more than an even shot of being the first black major party nominee for governor.
A complicating factor in terms of the black vote in the Democratic primary is that Luckett’s business partner is the actor Morgan Freeman, an African-American, and Luckett has been active in interracial initiatives in his home region of the Delta, which has the highest concentration of black votes in the state. This one could go either way.
Whoever wins the Democratic primary, it’s all uphill from there. A statewide elected Democrat is a rare breed these days – only one out of eight. Haley Barbour may be leaving state office soon, but the party-building and partisanship that he brought home to Mississippi from Washington are a big reason why.

Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or lloyd.gray@journalinc.com.

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