LLOYD GRAY: Political pace will pick up soon in state

By Lloyd Gray / NEMS Daily Journal

We are in yet another season of political overlap in Mississippi as this week’s Neshoba County Fair unofficially ushers in the 2011 statewide campaign while congressional races accelerate toward November.
Those who get involved in such things are busy juggling fundraisers for a variety of current and prospective candidates, making sure all their bases are covered – sometimes multiple bases in the same political race. So it goes in this age of money-driven politics.
A few observations:
• Gov. Haley Barbour, the dominant force in Mississippi politics for nearly seven years now, is steadily transitioning from the state back to the national political scene. Will he run for president? Maybe, but that’s far from a sure thing.
What is certain is that he has already re-emerged as a national Republican powerbroker, and assuming he doesn’t lose his touch, he’s likely to play that role well beyond the end of his governorship in January 2012. In the meantime, Barbour’s Mississippi profile is slowly lowering, as would be the case with any lame duck governor in the latter stages of a second term, but Barbour’s dominance has been so complete for so long it’s hard to imagine that he will completely fade away on the state political horizon.
• Even if he decides to stay put and run for re-election, Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann has captured a big political prize this spring and summer: a whole lot of attention and speculation on his intentions.
Hosemann is the wild card in the Republican gubernatorial race. The question of whether he will join Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant and Gulf Coast businessman Dave Dennis in the GOP primary – or perhaps run for lieutenant governor – has been the dominant topic of political conversation about 2011. Some of the conversationalists think he will say what he plans to do in his Neshoba speech. Whenever he announces, there will be much attention focused on him. Most of the time for politicians, attention is a good thing.
• Democratic Party prospects for statewide and lower-level offices in 2011 – already bleak – can’t be helped any by the fracas involving state party Chairman Jamie Franks of Lee County and his dueling lawsuits with Lee County Superintendent of Education Mike Scott. This is when the party apparatus needs to be recruiting candidates and raising money; Franks at the moment seems preoccupied with other things.
Not that Democratic candidates have ever relied heavily on the state party. For the last several decades, it has been dysfunctional more often than it has been helpful to candidates. Most successful statewide Democratic candidates – and there haven’t been many lately – have succeeded in spite of, not because of, the state party. But the mess in Lee County can’t help at the state level.
• As for the race that is actually under way – for the 1st District congressional seat – we have a hot one on our hands. So far, it’s been hard-fought, spirited, but not ugly.
Republican challenger Alan Nunnelee is using the playbook everybody expected: Go after Travis Childers, the incumbent, as a pawn in the Democratic congressional leadership’s game. It’s hard in this conservative district to hit Childers on his voting record, which has brought endorsements from the NRA, National Right to Life and a commendation from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. But if there’s a vulnerable spot for Childers, it’s that his presence contributes to the Democratic majority that allows its liberal leadership to stay in power. That’s where Nunnelee is zeroing in.
Childers has hit back, claiming his independence and contrasting that with Nunnelee’s adherence to the gubernatorial and party line in Jackson as a state senator and legislative leader.
While the rhetoric may be overblown at times, both candidates are emphasizing legitimate points of discussion that revolve around real issues of performance in public office. There’s a long way to go until November, and with this race drawing the intense interest of both national parties, things could get ugly in a hurry. But so far, this has been a fair fight without undue personal attacks.

Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579.