Britton and Watson, armed with potent ammo, trade blows in surprisingly bitter GOP Secretary of State primary

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Sam Britton and Michael Watson, Republican challengers for secretary of state

Sam Britton and Michael Watson, the two candidates battling it out for the Republican nomination in the Secretary of State’s race, have taken off the gloves ahead of the August 6 primary that could decide who will become the state’s next elections chief.

Britton, the southern district public service commissioner, and Watson, a state senator from Pascagoula, have been compiling opposition research on the other for months. Both campaigns recently started rolling it out.

Watson fired the first shot of the campaign in June, mocking a tweet from Britton that suggested the state should require Mississippians provide identification when they vote. The tweet was deleted quickly, as state law already mandates Mississippians produce photo ID before voting.

In response, Watson tweeted a video from the movie “Dumb and Dumber,” where Jim Carrey’s character proclaims: “No way, that’s great!”

Three weeks later, Britton released the first attack ad of any 2019 statewide candidate. Beginning on July 8, Britton’s statewide TV ad uses Watson’s support of U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in the 2016 Republican primary for president to raise questions about his allegiance to President Donald Trump.

“In this campaign my opponent has recklessly attacked me over and over. I’ve stayed focused on the issues that I feel are most important to this campaign and to Mississippians,” Britton told Mississippi Today in a statement. “I’m proud to have been one of the first Mississippi public officials to support Donald Trump during his 2016 campaign. I’m also disturbed to understand the lengths that my opponent went to work against Trump in 2016.”

This week, Watson jabbed back. It began as Gov. Phil Bryant, at a recent fundraiser for Watson in Biloxi, slammed Britton.

“The guy that wants to be Secretary of State other than Michael Watson, he decided he wanted to run as a Democrat, then he decided he wanted to be a Republican,” Bryant said, referencing when Britton ran for the state House of Representatives as a Democrat in 2003.

Bryant continued, mentioning Britton’s donations to Democrat Ronnie Musgrove during the former governor’s campaign in 2003 and 2008 U.S. Senate campaign against Roger Wicker.

“Then he wanted to give money to Ronnie Musgrove (in 2003),” Bryant said. “Haley Barbour is running for governor, and Ronnie Musgrove is running for governor, and you give (Musgrove) money. That tells me something about you. Then he’s running against Roger Wicker for the United States Senate, and you give Ronnie Musgrove more money. You just doubled down on your stupidity.”

Following Bryant’s comments at the fundraiser, the Watson campaign dropped an attack ad highlighting the same points. The ad also points out that Britton skipped a debate and questions expenses that Britton allegedly charged to the state while he was public service commissioner.

“Sam Britton launching a false and misleading attack on me a week ago is just another reminder about his campaign that’s hiding his background as a longtime Democrat candidate and donor, and I believe Republicans deserve to know the truth about his record,” Watson told Mississippi Today in a statement.

Britton has served as public service commissioner since 2015. On the campaign trail, he speaks in broad strokes about his plans as secretary of state, which include reforming the tax structure, ensuring private property rights and restricting business regulation. But he has proposed few specific policy ideas.

Watson has served in the state Senate since 2008. He has proposed that the Secretary of State’s office run the state’s driver’s license bureaus instead of the Department of Public Safety and that the state conduct background checks on Mississippians when they register to vote “to confirm legal citizenship,” Watson’s campaign website says.

“What we’ve seen over the past eight to twelve months, what’s going on in Texas, California and other states, illegal immigrants are showing up on voter rolls, it’s an issue we want to address here in Mississippi, make sure that’s taken care of,” Watson told WCBI in June.