PHILADELPHIA, Miss. (AP) — The Mississippi Republican Party needs to heal divisions created by a hard-fought U.S. Senate primary that is still being protested by tea party conservatives, House Speaker Philip Gunn said Thursday.
"The enemy is not other conservatives. The enemy is not even the Democratic Party," Gunn, R-Clinton, said at the Neshoba County Fair. "The enemy is out-of-control spending, government dependency, poor education, attacks on our religious freedoms, attacks on your right to bear arms.... We need to bind together and unify ourselves and fight against these issues and not each other."
Gunn spoke to thousands of people in and around the fairgrounds' large pavilion, and to audiences of radio and TV stations that provided live coverage of speeches at one of the state's largest annual political events.
Republican Gov. Phil Bryant spoke moments later and did not mention the GOP rift.
Instead, Bryant said he wants to focus on job creation and education. He repeated his opposition to abortion and said he offered to send Mississippi National Guard troops to help secure the U.S. border with Mexico. He said Texas Gov. Rick Perry declined the offer.
A few audience members held signs with the word "Betrayed" to protest state Sen. Chris McDaniel's loss to U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran in the June 24 Republican primary runoff. While McDaniel says he believes there were thousands of voting irregularities, he has not released documents to back up his claims. He says he intends to challenge the election but hasn't said when he'll do so.
Bryant told reporters later Thursday that he has not spoken to McDaniel since the runoff, but said he'd be willing to have a conversation. The governor has long received support from tea party groups, but he angered some by endorsing Cochran.
Bryant said the state GOP has survived other contentious elections, dating back to the 1991 gubernatorial primary when Vicksburg contractor Kirk Fordice defeated Pete Johnson, who was state auditor at the time.
"This Republican Party is still united and will be," Bryant told reporters.
Democratic former Gov. William Winter made his 26th speech Neshoba County Fair speech in the past 58 years. He was sworn in as a member of the state House in and 1948 and was state tax collector, state treasurer and lieutenant governor before serving as governor from 1980 to 1984.
Winter, 91, is best known for pushing the Education Reform Act into law in 1982 and for working on racial reconciliation for more than four decades. He touched on both themes Thursday, saying he supports a proposed state constitutional amendment that would require legislators to fully fund an education budget formula that has mostly been ignored since it was put into law in 1997. Winter also said Mississippi was once an isolationist state but it started to improve once racial segregation began to be dismantled in the 1960s.
"Once we began to recognize that our common issues were so much more important than the issues that divided us, then we started to make some real progress," Winter said.