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Will a Mississippi billionaire run for governor in the poorest state?

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Will a Mississippi billionaire run for governor in the poorest state?

Jun 06, 2024 | 3:30 pm ET
By Geoff Pender
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Thomas Duff gives the keynote speech during the 15th Circuit Intervention Court graduation at Woodlawn church in Columbia, Miss., on Friday, May 31, 2024. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today
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Thomas Duff gives the keynote speech during the 15th Circuit Intervention Court graduation at Woodlawn church in Columbia, Miss., on Friday, May 31, 2024. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

The richest man in the poorest state in America is contemplating a run for Mississippi governor.

Advisers to Thomas Duff, 67, who along with his brother Jim has been perennially listed as the richest in the state, said he’s very seriously considering a run for the open governor’s seat in 2027. They said he will make a decision “sooner rather than later.” Business and political leaders have been encouraging the billionaire to run, and he has reportedly considered such a run in the past but demurred. Duff himself declined comment.

Duff, of Hattiesburg, has been involved in state politics, but only peripherally or behind the scenes. He recently finished an eight-year stint on the state Institutions of Higher Learning Board, first appointed by former Gov. Phil Bryant. Duff has been a major contributor to many Republican campaigns in Mississippi, including most of the current GOP congressional and statewide officeholders. He and his brother are major supporters of higher education and have donated millions to Mississippi universities.

As Duff contemplates a gubernatorial run, so reportedly are numerous more traditional Republican candidates, including Attorney General Lynn Fitch, Agriculture Commissioner Andy Gipson, former state House Speaker Philip Gunn, former U.S. Rep. Gregg Harper, Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, Secretary of State Michael Watson and state Auditor Shad White.

Some political observers figure Duff entering the race could at least partially “clear the field” in a Republican primary. Some potential candidates might balk at facing someone who could easily write his own campaign an eight-figure check, and whom they had hoped might help fund theirs.

“If he decides to run for governor, he’s absolutely among the top runners if not the top runner,” said Austin Barbour, a state and national GOP strategist and lobbyist.

Some, it appears, might recalculate their next political move because they would support Duff as governor.

“For me it’s really exciting when you see somebody who has been a great American success story built on hard work and good vision — someone like that running for governor is exciting,” said Watson, who also has been widely mentioned as a candidate for lieutenant governor. “… For me, I want to make sure we have a great candidate for governor, someone who could really excite all of Mississippi, and somebody like Tommy Duff fits that bill for me, and really frees me up to know that a lieutenant governor with a good relationship with someone like (Duff) would be great for this state, working together with a vision for the same destination.”

For the voting masses, Duff would start any campaign as an unknown entity. While he has had the ears of the state’s most powerful politicians, he’s stayed out of the political fray and other than with IHL and philanthropic work, stayed out of the spotlight. His views on most major policy issues are at this point publicly unknown.

“I don’t know him well, but I see him as someone who has been involved in state government, in policy matters in his own way as a member of the IHL board for eight years, obviously involved in a lot of things locally as well,” Barbour said. “From all accounts, he is a conservative who has an interest in seeing Mississippi continue to become a better place.”

Could a billionaire gubernatorial candidate connect with the rank-and-file in poor Mississippi?

“There’s certainly a lot of history with independently wealthy people running for office and winning,” Barbour said. “Look at West Virginia — Jim Justice ran as the richest man in West Virginia, got elected there, won reelection and now is about to win a Senate seat … It’s always a balancing act for a self-funding candidate. You’ve got to come across that you can connect with the average voter. I’m sure Tommy Duff could do that … This man didn’t wake up as a billionaire. He obviously has achieved this success and probably had to overcome a lot of failure like a lot of us have.”

Duff and his brother turned a small, struggling company into Southern Tire Mart, the nation’s largest truck tire dealer and retread manufacturer. They created Duff Capitol Investors, the largest privately held business in Mississippi, with ownership in more than 20 companies, including KLLM Transport, TL Wallace Construction and Southern Insurance Group.

The Duff’s father, Ernest, started a tire business in 1973 to supply tires for his trucking business and as teens, the Duff brothers started working there. When the two brothers took over the tire business in the early 1980s, it was struggling and Thomas reportedly had to work without a paycheck for a while. But the brothers figured out how to speed up the retread process, and by the mid-1990s the company was flourishing. The family sold it in 1997 to an Iowa-based tire business, with the brothers joining the company.

But the two were unhappy with the new management, and in 2003, bought back the business for $15 million. They have since grown the company to nearly 300 stores, which did about $3.5 billion in business last year. The brothers are now reportedly worth a combined $7 billion.

Talk of Duff running for governor in recent years has typically brought analogy to the late former Gov. Kirk Fordice, owner of a large industrial and bridge construction company who ran as a businessman and political outsider and who in 1992 became the first Republican governor in Mississippi since Reconstruction.

Barbour said Duff’s wealth compared to Fordice’s “is not apples to apples with the wealth disparity — Kirk Fordice was successful in business, but Tommy Duff is the richest person in Mississippi.” Fordice’s famous gruffness and irascibility — he was known to threaten to whip the occasional reporter or Democratic attorney general — would also appear to be in contrast to Duff’s calm and friendly demeanor.

But successful businessmen who turn politician often grapple with politics and governance.

“Government doesn’t move at the fast pace that business does,” Barbour said. “Government is sometimes more like an aircraft carrier than a ski boat — it’s hard to turn it on a dime. But I’m sure he’s surrounded by smart people, and has had enough interaction with governors and government … He would know what he’s getting involved in.”

And the media and political spotlight can be harsh for someone who has been mostly behind the scenes.

“Everybody’s got their own level of — you used the term — baggage,” Barbour said. “but I’ve never heard anything negative about Tommy Duff. He’s built a business empire rivaled by none in Mississippi, and has done it without dirtying his reputation — he has a very good reputation in Mississippi.”

Duff’s was in the state and national media spotlight in Mississippi years ago, when authorities in 2016 thwarted a plot by three men to kidnap and extort money from him. A man the would-be kidnappers tried to include in the plot called and warned Duff, who contacted police. The three were convicted and sentenced to prison for the plot.

A 2018 Forbes article about the Duff brothers stated: “Despite their successes, Jim and Tom have maintained a veil of privacy over their affairs, giving only a handful of interviews. What is known about them gives them a salt-of-the-Earth persona: proud Mormons, donors to Tom’s alma mater, the University of Southern Mississippi — the exact sum fittingly never disclosed, though confirmed to be over to be over $5 million …”