The Elephant in the Room
by Alan Lange
Editor – MississippiPolitics.com
as featured in the February edition of the Metro Business Chronicle

Absent some major new entrant to the Mississippi Lieutenant Governor’s race, it looks like it is largely a contest between sitting State Auditor Phil Bryant and State Senator Charlie Ross, both of Rankin County. The winner of that Republican primary battle would face State Representative Jamie Franks, the 32 year old Democrat-populist candidate from Mooreville. Either Ross or Bryant should be able to easily defeat Franks with a good campaign and Haley Barbour at the top of the ticket.

The Lieutenant Governor has long been considered the most powerful office in Mississippi politics. Most that have held the office have come out of a pretty predictable mold. They were lawyers with legislative service that were “back-office operators”. Brad Dye, Eddie Briggs, Ronnie Musgrove and Amy Tuck all fit that mold. Most were marginal “retail politicians”, with Musgrove being the obvious exception. They operated largely out of sight of cameras and used their knowledge of the process and power to control committee appointments and the flow of legislation to wield influence.

The race between Bryant and Ross will introduce a definite contrast in style.

Phil Bryant
On one hand, there’s Phil Bryant, the State Auditor that has served with distinction for over a decade. A native Mississippian, Bryant is one of the best “retail” politicians Mississippi has turned out in a long time. He is in his element in front of a local Rotary club or a Republican Women’s club. A self-professed political disciple of former Governor Kirk Fordice and current US Senator Trent Lott, Bryant spent five years in the State House before being tapped as Auditor by Fordice. Since then he has run successfully defended that office twice. During Musgrove’s one-term as governor, Bryant was the only Republican elected statewide official or “Republican when Republican wasn’t cool” as Bryant tells it.

Bryant is good-lookin’, smooth-talkin’ and has an “aw-shucks” quality that exudes comfort speaking to crowds or just one-on-one. He largely posits himself as a consensus builder. One needs to look no further than how he announced his campaign for Lieutenant Governor to see the point. Bryant embarked on an eight-city, three-day tour of Mississippi ? not wanting to leave any geographic group feeling “left out” that he did not announce there.

He will be a formidable presence “on the stump” and will work very hard. With about $500K in campaign funds before the real start of his campaign, he will be well-funded, well-staffed and will probably not be prone to shooting himself in the foot on the campaign trail.

An avowed conservative, he will campaign on such issues as bringing reform in the Mississippi educational system and leading an effort to ban abortion in Mississippi legislatively and take that challenge to the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Charlie Ross
And on the other hand is Charlie Ross. A Eupora native, Ross graduated from the Air Force Academy, got his law degree from Harvard, and served with distinction in Desert Storm as a pilot. A well-known attorney with a large firm in Jackson, Ross has ventured to balance public and private life and service, and thinks that balance has been crucial to his success in both arenas. He is widely regarded as both a great defense litigation attorney and a leader in the Mississippi Senate.

Ross hangs his hat on being an extremely effective legislator and the field general for the legislative tort reform effort in Mississippi. He is Chairman of the Senate Judiciary A committee (or Jud-A). He is largely credited with authoring and driving the legislation that effected the most significant change in the civil justice system in Mississippi, ever. In addition to tort reform, Ross has been a consistent legislative ally for Republicans and Governor Barbour on a wide array of issues such as the Partnership, Medicaid reform, the cigarette/grocery tax swap, the Katrina recovery, and restrictions on abortion. He also led the legislative effort to pass the “Castle Law” that provides additional protections for property owners. He positions himself as “Haley Barbour’s wingman in the Legislature” and a “workhorse” (as opposed to a “showhorse”). He revels in that contrast between himself and his opponent and he has been selling it to red meat Republicans on the campaign trail.

Though he is not nearly the skilled retail politician that his opponent is, he is largely viewed by his colleagues in the Senate as the most effective leader that body could have. Ross supporter from the key Desoto County area, Senator Merle Flowers (R) said “Mississippi is fortunate to have a leader of his character and ability in the Senate.”

Ross raised a very impressive $865K according to his January campaign report. This is largely due to the efforts of Whit Hughes, former fundraiser for the National GOP and Haley Barbour’s gubernatorial campaign. Ross has had impressive campaign gatherings statewide and has made good use of the time when he was the only on-the-record committed candidate in the race. Like Bryant, Ross has put together an impressive group of paid staff and consultants and he will get good advice.

The Elephant in the Room
Bryant and Ross go way back. They both consider the other friends and respect each others political abilities. From attending supper clubs and Republican conventions together, to consulting each other on their next political steps to Ross’ wife volunteering on Bryant’s earlier Auditor campaigns, they have a very fond history with each other. So the only interesting subplot in the campaign will be, with all of that money raised, how personal will this campaign get?

Ross has raised enough money to ensure that money alone will not decide this race. Both candidates will have enough money to get their message out via paid media and run an effective campaign. Both candidates will also cast themselves as Barbour allies and attempt to wrap themselves in those long Barbour coattails, though Barbour will largely stay out of the race not wanting to make an enemy of an incoming Republican Lt. Governor. The candidates are philosophically pretty similar, so the winning campaign will hinge on message, image and execution in the key Republican strongholds.

The elephant in the room is that Republican primary voters will be choosing between a gifted “retail” politician that has proven himself in statewide campaigns (Bryant) and a gifted legislator that will hang his hat on his proven ability to operate behind the scenes and influence the Senate (Ross).

Ross’ challenge will be to force the campaign to be about specific legislation and ideas and put Bryant on the defensive. If he doesn’t, it will be a tough campaign for Ross to convince voters that he’s their man. Bryant’s challenge will be to stay clear of any major landmines like the Partnership (of which he was a Board Member) or the Beef Plant (over which he has presided as Auditor), and keep the race focused on macro issues such as education reform and his track record as Auditor.

Both candidates will be largely transparent and this race will very much be WYSIWYG ? what you see is what you get. The question is, which one will Mississippians choose? If you add in the dynamic that Barbour may be drafted to run for Vice President in the 2008 election cycle, you have the makings for one of the most interesting elections in Mississippi political history.