Lots of trial balloons floated in race to succeed Congressman Harper but most don’t stay in the air

Almost all Mississippians were shocked, or at least surprised, when U. S. Rep. Gregg Harper, first elected to the House in 2008, announced he will not run for re-election this year. Mississippi has just four members of its U.S. House of Representative delegation, and contests for an open seat are rare. Immediately after Harper’s announcement, phone lines in the state were jumping when would-be candidates started testing the waters for support and if they could potentially raise the necessary campaign money necessary to seriously compete. Harper raised about $1.2 million when he first won the seat after Chip Pickering stepped down after holding the seat for 12 years following the retirement of longtime Congressman Sonny Montgomery.  Montgomery represented the Third Congressional District for 30 years. Reasonable estimates to win the 2018 election to replace Harper project it will cost about $2 million for the primary and general election for a seat that should be safe for Republicans.

Potential candidate with best resume, credentials will not run

If Rhonda Keenum, wife of Mississippi State University president Dr.Mark Keenum, had decided to run, she may have been the early frontrunner to succeed Harper. Rhonda was very interested and came very close to being a candidate. Keenum would not have been a favorite because she is the wife of Dr. Keenum, MSU is located in the 3rd CD. She would have been a strong contender because of her own credentials and political experience. Rhonda was a top staffer for Sen. Roger Wicker when Wicker served in the U.S. House,

served as assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Commerce, and held a high position in the White House under President George W. Bush. She has also worked as a lobbyist and pubic relations professional. Rhonda Keenum is conservative, tough and smart. In my opinion, she would have been a very formidable candidate and the early favorite to win the Republican primary.

The early odds list Rankin-Madison counties DA Michael Guest as a favorite, but a lot can change before June and November

More than a dozen individuals have been rumored as candidates to replace Harper, but Michael Guest, district attorney for Rankin and Madison counties, looks very strong. Those counties will carry a lot of weight in the GOP primary. There are a number of indications Guest is the favored candidate of Harper. At this point, we don’t know how much of an active role Harper will take in supporting Guest, but even quiet support would be a plus for Harper’s fellow Republican from Rankin County. Gov. Phil Bryant’s top political operative, Prince Josh Gregory, has signed on to direct Guest’s campaign. The qualification as a candidate by Guest was quickly followed by that of Whit Hughes. Hughes was deputy director of the Mississippi Development Authority under Director Gray Swoope when Haley Barbour was governor. Many still remember when Hughes was a reserve on the Mississippi State team that went to basketball’s NCAA Final Four in 1996. Some supporters of Cong. Harper may also remember Hughes worked for Harper’s runoff opponent in the 2008 Republican primary, then state Sen. Charlie Ross. Veteran national and state politico Austin Barbour, nephew of Haley, is working for Hughes. Wealthy businessman Perry Parker of Covington County followed Hughes into the race. Parker had great success on Wall Street and the financial markets. Parker is not well known and has a small political basis in the district, but he can apparently self-fund a very legitimate campaign. Another wealthy businessman, David Landrum, tried the path Parker is apparently taking and finished third in the 2008 GOP primary despite spending a lot of money. Veteran lobbyist and political operative Hayes Dent is signed on with the Parker campaign. The latest serious entry is state Sen. Sally Doty of Brookhaven. Doty has potential to be a strong candidate, but during the campaign, she may have to overcome some personal issues that are well known in Jackson. Another female entry is Morgan Dunn of Magee. She is largely unknown and not rated as a serious candidate.

Numerous other potential candidates have either floated their own trial balloons or have been rumored as considering the race. Secretary of Agriculture Cindy Hyde-Smith quickly ruled out the race. State Treasurer Lynn Fitch was mentioned and would have been a strong candidate, She apparently remains fixed on her intent to run for attorney general in 2019. Highly regarded state Sen. Josh Harkins, also of Madison County, would have been a strong candidate, but even before publicly taking himself out of the race, Harkins decided not to run. His decision was based on him and his wife having young children – the best of reasons since Congress, by and large, is not really family friendly. First term Republican legislator Cory Wilson who has a bright political future, also stepped aside. Wilson’s time is not now. State Rep. Andy Gipson also announced he will not be a candidate. There were even some rumors former congressman Chip Pickering might seek to reclaim his old seat in Congress. Pickering’s messy divorce is behind him and he has remarried.

Name of strongest Guest challenger is To Be Determined

The current field of five qualified candidates will most likely expand when the March 1 qualifying deadline rolls around. Most political observers are making Guest the early favorite. As a political veteran told me last week, besides Guest, the next strongest candidate is, “To Be Determined.”

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