LLOYD GRAY: We're not used to this kind of race

By Lloyd Gray/NEMS Daily Journal

Who would ever have thought that Mississippi would one day see two consecutive lackluster governor’s races where the outcome seemed more or less ordained from the outset?
Little more than six weeks before primary day, Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant remains firmly in control of a race in which none of his opponents, Republican or Democrat, seems to be generating much momentum.
That could all change, of course. Political campaigns can turn around in a hurry.
But Dave Dennis, the Gulf Coast businessman thought to have the best chance to slow down Bryant’s sprint to the Republican nomination, has a long way to go to catch up. Ron Williams and Hudson Holliday, two unknowns with big pockets, are spending lots of their own money but getting little traction for it.
Meanwhile, any Democrat will be a decided underdog in the general election. Clarksdale lawyer-businessman Bill Luckett and Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny DuPree are providing an interesting sideshow in the Democratic primary, but it would be a huge upset if either were able to defeat a Republican in November.
This is clearly a case where Bryant is the safe bet, and contributions and other kinds of support have gravitated to him because of it. Support for his candidacy is driven more by pragmatism than passion in many quarters, but the support is there nonetheless.
And the interesting part is, Haley Barbour likely isn’t all that excited about Bryant as his successor.
Dennis has tried to cast himself as the logical heir to the Kirk Fordice-Haley Barbour legacy – the governor as CEO in the business model. The attempt to portray Bryant as the career politician who lacks business world knowledge would appear to be the right strategy in an era in which career politicians are held in even lower regard than usual, but it hasn’t caught on – not even to any significant degree in the business community, where the money is still heavily on Bryant.
So we’ve got a second straight quadrennial election without a highly competitive governor’s race stirring up the political juices among those who keep up with the sport.
Four years ago, Haley Barbour was riding on a wave of post-Katrina popularity and the Democrats for the first time in Mississippi history had no formidable candidate for governor. It was clear pretty much from the start that he had re-election in the bag. Barbour trounced the Democratic nominee, John Arthur Eaves, who never posed a serious threat to his re-election.
Prior to the late 1980s, Mississippi governors were prohibited from succeeding themselves, so there was a wide open campaign every four years. In a fair number of those elections the early frontrunner was eventually disposed by a late-charging dark horse. Always there was a degree of suspense heading up to the primaries and from 1975 on in the general election.
The first governor who could have run for re-election – Bill Allain – didn’t, so Fordice’s 1995 campaign for a second term was the first in the modern era. Though he eventually won by a solid margin, then-Secretary of State Dick Molpus gave him a hard fight.
In 1999, the field was open and Democrat Ronnie Musgrove and Republican Mike Parker battled to a virtual draw that was officially decided in the Mississippi House of Representatives in Musgrove’s favor. Four years later, Barbour challenged Musgrove in a campaign that went down to the wire before Barbour took the Mansion away from him.
So we’re not accustomed to campaigns in which there’s not a lot of movement and at least a degree of suspense.
This year the lieutenant governor’s race is the one that is getting the competitive juices flowing. State Sen. Billy Hewes and State Treasurer Tate Reeves, lacking any serious philosophical or policy differences, are touting their different backgrounds and have recently taken more direct and acerbic pokes at each other. The Democrats are so weak that they don’t even have a candidate in that race, which in itself is stunning testimony to how much has changed in Mississippi politics in just the last few years.
No change in campaigns, however, is as marked as a governor’s race with so few fireworks and so little to talk about – and so little time left for that to change.

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

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