Can Barbour’s momentum help other GOP statewide candidates win?

Published 10:46 pm Saturday, August 11, 2007

Judging from the results of the primary election, Gov. Haley Barbour’s popularity heading into November is high and downticket Republicans may be tempted to grab onto his coattails for the ride.

However, some political observers say that might not be advantageous to them or Barbour.

Right now, Barbour is the odd-on favorite in the Nov. 6 general election over his Democratic competitor, John Arthur Eaves Jr., a Madison attorney who has thus far used much of his own money to finance his campaign.

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Barbour, who breezed past political unknown Frederick Jones of Gulfport in Tuesday’s Republican primary, has $7.2 million in campaign cash, and the political connections to raise more.

The governor’s popularity has grown over the last four years as he’s helped bring several lucrative business investments to the state, including the planned Toyota vehicle assembly plant in northeast Mississippi that is expected to bring thousands of jobs to the region.

Barbour also has led the continued rebuilding and recovery efforts along the Gulf Coast, the region Hurricane Katrina laid waste to in August 2005.

While there have been bumps in the first term, including his opposition to raising the tobacco tax and cutting the grocery tax, there appears little doubt that many voters are satisfied with Barbour’s work in office. Whether he has the capacity to reach down and alter other races remains to be seen, said John Bruce, a political scientist at the University of Mississippi.

“Out of the gate, you have to give the advantage to the Republicans because of the nature of the state. It’s conservative right now. Barbour will inject his influence,” Bruce said.

Barbour’s expertise is in helping others win races. As Republican National Committee chairman from 1993 to 1997, Barbour helped engineer the GOP’s 1994 takeover of Congress, but his camp won’t say whether Barbour will campaign for other statewide candidates over the next few months.

“The governor is focusing on his own campaign this year,” said Ryan Annison, Barbour’s campaign spokesman.

Bruce said Barbour might not want to campaign for other GOP candidates “because if he pushes hard for somebody and they lose, he might have to work with a person he worked hard against.”

The GOP candidates for statewide office already have begun to align themselves with the governor, especially state Auditor Phil Bryant, who defeated state Sen. Charlie Ross of Brandon for the party’s nomination for lieutenant governor.

Bryant portrays himself as a close, conservative ally of Barbour.

“We need a conservative lieutenant governor. Our governor needs someone who can work with him on the agenda for all people,” Bryant said this past week while he, Barbour, and Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck were gathered for a news conference at GOP headquarters in Jackson. Tuck, limited to two terms, is not on any ballot this year.

Bryant of Brandon will face Democratic state Rep. Jamie Franks, an attorney from Mooreville, in the Nov. 6 general election.

The other Republicans in competitive statewide races are:

— State Sen. Mike Chaney of Vicksburg who faces Democrat Gary Anderson, a former state fiscal officer, in the insurance commissioner’s race.

— Stacey Pickering of Laurel, who faces the winner of an Aug. 21 runoff between Democrats Todd Brand of Bailey and Mike Sumrall of Mt. Olive, in the state auditor’s race.

— Delbert Hosemann of Jackson, who faces Democrat Rob Smith of Richland in the secretary of state’s race.

— Al Hopkins of Gulfport, who is challenging incumbent Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood of Brandon.

— Incumbent Agriculture Commissioner Lester Spell of Richland, who is being challenged by Democrat Rickey Cole of Jackson.

— Incumbent State Treasurer Tate Reeves of Jackson, who is being challenged by Democrat Shawn O’Hara of Hattiesburg.

The Mississippi Democratic Party isn’t ready to concede any statewide races, said party Chairman Wayne Dowdy of McComb, who described Barbour’s coattails as “short and ragged.”

Dowdy said the defeat of state Sen. Tommy Robertson of Moss Point in the GOP primary illustrates the extent of Barbour’s influence.

Robertson was heavily criticized for supporting Barbour’s opposition to the tobacco and grocery tax legislation.

Dowdy said Barbour endorsed Robertson’s campaign and recorded radio advertisements for him, but the lawmaker still lost to political newcomer Michael Watson, a Pascagoula attorney.

“Robertson was soundly defeated and that shows that Mississippians have an independent streak. They will not be dictated to by Haley Barbour,” Dowdy said.

Dowdy said Eaves’ campaign picked up momentum after the candidate trounced his three opponents in the primary. Eaves still has much ground to make up in the fundraising chase as his $484,390 in cash on hand is a fraction of Barbour’s campaign fund.

Dowdy said Franks is a strong candidate because voters do not want a lieutenant governor who is in lockstep with the governor.

Franks has said that if he was elected he would be willing to work with the governor, but not “rubber stamp” everything Barbour proposed.

Steve Rozman, a political science professor at Tougaloo College, said he hasn’t seen any evidence that Barbour’s coattails will have an effect in the races. He also pointed to Robertson’s loss as an example.

Robertson, an attorney who has been in the Legislature since 1992 and chairman of the Finance Committee, blocked a vote in the 2007 session on a bill that would have cut Mississippi’s 7 percent grocery tax while increasing the state’s cigarette excise tax.

The state’s grocery tax is one of the highest in the nation, and the excise tax, at 18 cents a pack, is one of the lowest.

Robertson had said that he didn’t bring the bill up for a vote because Barbour had said he would veto the legislation if lawmakers passed it.

“If Haley Barbour was not identified with something that controversial, he might have had some broader coattails,” Rozman said.