Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour has shown he knows how to maneuver his way through a bad storm. While leaders in neighboring Louisiana bickered about who loused up the recovery there from Hurricane Katrina, Barbour was taking bows for his work in Mississippi and cruising to re-election with a higher margin than four years earlier.
The former national Republican Party chairman is leading the Republican Governors Association, having stepped in to take the wheel after its former chairman, Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina flamed out in a scandal that left his career and family in tatters.
Barbour takes over the RGA as 37 states prepare to hold gubernatorial elections next year. Thus, Barbour will be raising money and campaigning on behalf of many Republican candidates, increasing his national profile and getting himself up to date with key party officials, politicians and donors across the country.
In June he visited the pivotal primary states of New Hampshire and Iowa to help raise money for their state GOP organizations.
That combination of appearances is rarely a coincidence.
He has been particularly proud of a tort reform law, which he praised at a speech at a county fair in the summer of 2007: “In 2004, our legislature passed the most comprehensive tort reform law in the country, and it has worked. Toyota would not have located in Mississippi if we hadn’t passed tort reform. Four years ago Mississippi had lost more than 38,000 jobs. Our state had lost 22 percent of its manufacturing jobs during those four years — the worst in the nation. In this administration there has been a net increase of more than 41,000 jobs. Today more people are working in Mississippi than at any other time in our state’s history.”
Where many politicians failed in their response to the Katrina devastation, Barbour excelled. In 2006, Governing magazine named Barbour Governor of the Year, saying he was a “strong leader who communicated calm to the public” while also serving as a “central decision-making point” when roadblocks slowed things down. Among the successes, the state provided temporary housing for more than 100,000 residents, helped thousands of businesses rebuild to erase a labor shortage and reopened all public schools within three months.
Billy Hewes III, a Republican state senator from the Gulf Coast, said, “He is to Katrina what Rudy Giuliani was to 9/11.”
As Barbour embarks on increased national travel and tests the waters for a possible presidential bid in 2012, many will question whether his southern roots and lobbying success will prohibit him from being a viable national candidate.
But his demonstrated success as an executive will give him a platform to run if he wants to. And his years spent in Washington counting votes, raising money, and helping candidates will give him an advantage.
If Barbour launches a presidential bid for 2012, he will have to counter the conventional wisdom by showing he can win outside the South and can do so by displaying strength in Iowa, New Hampshire, or another early primary state.
A household name he’s not, but someone to watch in 2012 he is.