Had someone told me five years ago that Phil Bryant would cast a longer political shadow as his predecessor, Haley Barbour, upon leaving office, I would have probably told them to get their head examined. Yet that’s exactly what Bryant may be poised to do. According to a MS Today/NBC/Survey Monkey poll released last week, Phil Bryant has a 70% approval rating in Mississippi. That would make him one of the most popular governors in the country. And when it comes to this year’s statewide races, one thing is for sure, he’s picking early and picking often even in primary races to help cement his political legacy.
The political optics for Bryant are strong. He enjoys a high favorability rating and a friendship and political relationship with President Trump that most all other governors envy. Having appointed and successfully installed Cindy Hyde-Smith through a special election, he is now certainly feeling his oats.
This cycle he has made endorsements or de facto endorsements for statewide offices all the way down to the state house level in primaries, which is not the norm. Politically, that’s a bit unusual for an outgoing two term governor to try and wield his political legacy in such a way. So why?
There are three possible reasons:
- A younger generation: Bryant was 41 when he was appointed by Governor Fordice to be State Auditor. That has clearly had an impact on his thought process when making these decisions himself over two decades later. Bryant seems to be “paying it forward” for the next (younger) generation of Mississippi leaders to take the torch, evidenced by appointing Auditor Shad White, Ag Commissioner Andy Gipson, Appeals Judge Jack Wilson, among others, and by supporting Tate Reeves, Michael Watson, David McRae, and so on and so on.
- What’s wrong with supporting your friends: Bryant has developed close friendships during his time in public office and now some of these are running for office/higher office. Bryant is a relationship guy and this is likely a significant component to some of these decisions.
- Last but certainly not least: By the numbers, he has a good story to tell. Unemployment is low. Even with a steady diet of tax cuts, state revenues are up. Teachers have been paid more, and the state is in strong fiscal shape. As often happens with successful CEO’s, elected officials and the like, once the end draws near, a healthy anxiety develops. Great leaders want great successors. They want their replacements to achieve even more than they did. They also want to make darn sure that their successor is not the guy who wants to come in with a hacksaw and dismantle their key accomplishments (like Trump largely has to Obama’s). Put simply, he wants to leave the store to those who will nurture it and ensure growth, not those who want to liquidate the assets and try a whole new business venture.
So let’s take a look at his “slate” of candidates.
Governor – Tate Reeves
Bryant was on board early and strong for Reeves. Even though he has two primary opponents, one which announced last minute, Bryant never wavered. He’s cut commercials and helped raise money, but when it comes down to it, Bryant is committed to be as active as he needs to be to make sure Tate wins both in August (where he’s still heavily favored) and in November.
Tate was a good partner for Bryant in the legislature and, therefore, a critical part of the successful legislative policies. While Reeves and Bryant have different personalities, they have developed an unlikely friendship and Bryant appears to feel good about leaving the store in Tate’s hands.
Lt. Governor – Delbert Hosemann
This one was pretty simple as Hosemann has only token Republican opposition. But Bryant and Hosemann remain close and Bryant obviously values connectivity to the office he once held. And he and Delbert have had a strong relationship for many years.
Secretary of State – Michael Waston
Bryant has expressed a clear preference for State Senator Michael Watson, who is running against Southern District Public Service Commissioner Sam Britton. Although there are probably other reasons, Michael certainly falls into the close friendship and younger generation categories mentioned above.
Treasurer – David McRae
Bryant has come around to an endorsement of McRae, which originally manifested itself in the form of helping him raise money at campaign events. Lately, Bryant has cut television and radio ads for McRae. McRae is running against State Senate Appropriations Chairman Buck Clarke from Hollandale. This endorsement hit overdrive after former Governor Haley Barbour endorsed Clarke.
Bryant clearly supports downticket officeholders like his appointees Auditor Shad White and Ag Commissioner Andy Gipson as well as State Insurance Commissioner Mike Chaney.
Notably, the one statewide race he’s essentially stayed out of is the Attorney General’s race featuring Treasurer Lynn Fitch, Rep. Mark Baker and Andy Taggart. The stakes are high in that race. It’s highly likely that the office will fall into Republican hands for the first time in a century and most Republicans are angling for a total reboot to rid the legacy of Jim Hood and Mike Moore before him. Bryant has relations with all three of Republican contenders. Lynn Fitch served as Treasurer. Mark Baker is a political ally of Bryant’s and was his de facto floor leader in the House of Representatives. Andy Taggart has been a friend of Bryant since Fordice appointed him auditor in the 90’s. Time will tell if he gets into this race, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him make an endorsement in what is sure to be a runoff, depending a little bit on how his other endorsements pan out on August 6.
Other notable endorsements
Public Service Commission Central District – Nic Lott
Bryant has recently made a move to endorse Lott in the primary against fellow Republican Brent Bailey. Lott has been a longtime state employee had had experience working for Trent Lott, later for the state during Haley Barbour’s tenure, and most recently for the Bryant administration at the Mississippi Development Authority. Lott, who is black, is poised to become the highest ranking black statewide elected official in this regional office. Bryant has publically (and more adamantly in private) advocated for minority outreach and diversity in the party.
Bryant has subtly or somewhat subtly endorsed several state house and senate members, usually in the form of writing small checks, allowing the candidates to use his name in their campaign materials, or posting something complimentary about the candidates on his vast social media network. He has cast his lot with several prominent legislative incumbents who do have challengers, including House Ways & Means Chair Jeff Smith.
Notably, he has subtly cast his lot in this race with Bruce Bartley who is running against Rep. Joel Bomgar. Bomgar has enjoyed a wide re-election margin over Bartley in 2015, but has politically hung his hat on a relatively purist approach in the state House, which has often angered some in the more establishment wing. He’s also very pro marijuana, which couldn’t be further from Bryant’s position. Politically, this is likely Bryant’s most “uphill” endorsement.
With most downticket races likely to be uncompetitive in the general election, we will largely know in the next couple of weeks whether Bryant is able to leave behind his own “boys of spring”.