BOBBY HARRISON: Congressional races hinge, in part, on distance from Obama

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – A Democratic politician said in a private conversation back in 2008 that Barack Obama’s victory might make it easier for members of his party in statewide elections in Mississippi.
That was probably wishful thinking on his part.
Obama has put a face on the Democratic Party for Mississippians – a face the citizens of the state for the most part do not like.
As happy as Democrats in general were with the historic, hard-to-believe victory of Obama in 2008, for Mississippi Democrats he has made their mission – winning elections in the state – more difficult.
Based on national polls, Obama is still fairly popular – especially when compared to other national politicians, specifically the Republican and Democratic congressional leadership.
But Obama lost in Mississippi to John McCain by a rather large 56.2 percent to 43 percent margin and conventional wisdom is that he is no more popular now in Mississippi than he was on election day in November 2008.
So granted, Obama’s victory might have emboldened Mississippi Democrats, but it did not make their job easier.
Mississippi Republicans will try to tie their Democratic opposition to Obama.
But do not gloat Mississippi Republicans. In other regions of the country, Democrats are probably trying to tie their Republican opposition to Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour.
In the past eight years before Obama’s election, there was really no one Mississippi Republicans could conjure up to try to demonize. John Kerry, Massachusetts senator and 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, was around for about a year. There was always the other Massachusetts senator, the late Ted Kennedy, but demonizing him got old after a while.
Then there were the Clintons. But Bill was out of office and his profile was not as high.
As president, Obama is there every day front and center – somebody for Mississippi Republicans to link to state Democrats.
The first test of how effective Republicans are in linking Obama to state Democrats will come in November in the 1st District where incumbent Democratic Congressman Travis Childers of Booneville will be challenged by state Sen. Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo.
In 2008, when Childers first won the post, Republicans were obviously unsuccessful in efforts to link him to Obama in a negative way. But Obama was not in office yet. Plus, some believe Childers’ victory had much more to do with local issues – the geography of the district and hard political feelings between Republicans on the east side of the district and on the west side – than it did with national political issues.
Childers will present himself as a conservative Democrat who does what he believes is right rather than what any person or party wants him to do. Nunnelee will try to portray Childers as just another Obama Democrat.
The outcome of the Nunnelee-Childers race could give some hints about the 2011 statewide elections.
As many as six of the eight statewide slots will be open in 2011. It is questionable whether Democrats will be able to field candidates with the financial wherewithal to be viable contenders for all of those slots.
If Childers is able to hold on to the 1st District congressional seat in November, that could embolden Mississippi Democrats much more than Obama’s 2008 presidential victory. A Childers victory would especially reinforce the belief that a conservative Democrat can still do well in Northeast Mississippi.
Northeast Mississippi, obviously, makes up a major portion of the 1st District. For many years most have believed the key to victory in statewide races for Democrats is to do well in Northeast Mississippi and carry the traditional Democratic areas on the western side of the state along the Mississippi River.
That is what Ronnie Musgrove did when he was elected governor in 2003. In 2007, Haley Barbour took Northeast Mississippi away from Musgrove. That is also what Democrat Jim Hood, a native of Northeast Mississippi, has done in two convincing wins for the office of attorney general.
Bobby Harrison is Capitol Bureau chief in Jackson for the Daily Journal. Contact him at bobby.harrison@djournal.com or (601) 353-3119.