TUPELO – If you haven’t yet noticed the fierce political battle brewing in Northeast Mississippi, you soon will.
Candidates for the 1st Congressional District seat are expected to intensify their campaigns after Monday’s Labor Day holiday.
That means more ads, more mailers, more stumping and more media exposure as the Nov. 2 general election draws near.
Incumbent U.S. Rep. Travis Childers, D-Booneville, is working hard to keep the job he first claimed in a May 2008 special election and won for a full-term in November of that year.
GOP challenger Alan Nunnelee of Tupelo will do everything he can to prevent that.
Fighting alongside the heavy hitters are a slate of lesser-known candidates: Gail Giaramita of the Constitution Party, Harold Taylor of the Libertarian Party and independents A.G. Baddley, Les Green, Rico Hoskins and Wally Pang.
Barbara Dale Washer of the Reform Party also was on the ballot, but her name was removed last week, along with all other state Reform Party candidates, after questions arose about their party’s local leadership in their qualifying process.
Most spectators, though, will watch the Childers-Nunnelee showdown, a race whose implications extend well beyond north Mississippi.
Childers, a former Prentiss County chancery clerk, was a surprise winner when he took the district’s long-held Republican seat – first in the special election and again in the November 2008 general election.
His back-to-back wins helped bolster the Democrats’ majority status in Congress and brought Childers attention in national party circles. It also irked the GOP, which had held the seat since 1995, when Roger Wicker replaced the retired Democrat Jamie Whitten.
The GOP has been mounting its counterattack ever since 2008, with Nunnelee as its chosen candidate long before he actually won the June Republican primary.
Lots of attention, money
And the money rolls in. The state senator and Tupelo businessman has raised $884,825 so far, according to the latest campaign finance reports released one month ago.
He outpaced Childers by about $35,000 during the April-June quarter, but the incumbent has garnered more money overall with $1.3 million, much of it from well-heeled political action committees.
Childers also has more in the bank – $903,469 versus Nunnelee’s $233,205.
In addition to their campaign war chests, both candidates are likely to receive aid from their national parties’ congressional committees. Each committee has identified the 1st District seat as a valuable asset that could fall into either side’s hands.
It’s among a handful of swing seats nationwide receiving major attention and lots of party cash.
“It’s one of the top 15 contests in the country,” said Tim Sahd, House Race Hotline editor for the National Journal.
“Republicans obviously believe they have a great shot, and they’re going to put as many resources as they can down there because it’s low-hanging fruit,” Sahd said. “Obviously, though, Childers is a strong candidate. He proved that … in 2008.”
The GOP has reason to feel confident this year. Despite the district’s decisive vote for Childers in 2008 – he won in November by 10 percentage points over Southaven Mayor Greg Davis, the Republican nominee – people still heavily sided with Republicans in the U.S. Senate and presidential elections that year, as the district has consistently done in recent decades.
And the political climate that had buoyed Childers’ chances as a Democrat two years ago no longer exists: strong minority voter interest because of Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy and lingering animosity among many Republicans that year toward Davis.
Davis angered voters with his negative campaign tactics and lost GOP support from the backers of his vanquished primary opponent, Glenn McCullough Jr. of Tupelo.
Additionally, Davis is from DeSoto County, considered a Memphis suburb, setting up a clear geographic division with Childers from the mostly rural eastern side of the district. With Nunnelee from Tupelo, that geographic divide doesn’t exist this year.
As for voter interest, black voter turnout appeared to be the primary reason that Obama’s 130,000 votes in the 1st District in 2008 were about a 14 percent gain from Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry’s showing in the 2004 race, and most of those votes likely went to Childers. Still, Childers’ 185,000 votes far outpaced Obama’s showing.
Without Obama, black turnout will likely be down, which could cost Childers votes.
Republicans, on the other hand, believe the current environment is conducive to a large GOP turnout, even though turnout in all groups usually is significantly lower in non-presidential election years.
“Democrats who were in the high point of enthusiasm with Obama’s election, that has completely subsided in just two years,” said Isaac Wood, communications director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, which publishes the widely read Crystal Ball report and is predicting a Nunnelee victory.
“Now Republicans, who seemed ambivalent with John McCain, they have something to be excited about. They’re ready to take back the House, and they’re poised to do that.”
Inspired by the anti-incumbent drumbeat of the national Tea Party movement, conservative and swing voters could swarm the polls in November to oust Democratic leaders, this thinking goes.
Mississippi’s 1st District is among 17 Democratic seats nationwide predicted by The Crystal Ball to go Republican in the next election, though other national political forecasters give Childers at least an even chance to win. The GOP needs 39 House seats to gain the majority.
This time, 1st District Republicans have a candidate around which to rally.
Unlike Davis, Nunnelee has painted himself as a likable guy. Instead of attacking the personal ethics of his opponent, as Davis did, Nunnelee simply ties Childers to the reviled Democratic trio of Obama, U.S. Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid and U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.
Pelosi, from San Francisco, evokes the most rage.
A vote for Childers is a vote for Pelosi and her liberal agenda, according to Nunnelee and his camp. It’s a tactic they’ve borrowed from the national playbook and one used in congressional races nationwide as Republicans try to oust vulnerable Democrats.
Childers’ voting record, though, isn’t liberal. He’s a member of the conservative Blue Dog Coalition of Democrats with one of the most independent voting records in Congress, according to the National Journal.
He also has been endorsed by the National Rifle Association and the National Right to Life Committee, solidly conservative political powerhouses.
But “voters aren’t interested in hearing how independent you are from your party,” Wood said. “They’re going to ask, ‘What party again?’”
That doesn’t stop the Democrat from fighting back. He has blasted Nunnelee’s opposition of stimulus dollars for Mississippi’s underfunded public schools – an affront to both teachers and school children, Childers claims.
And he has chided Nunnelee’s support for a handful of legislative tax increases – which Childers claims violated Nunnelee’s pledge not to raise taxes – as well as his reluctance to definitively denounce Social Security privatization.
Expect to hear these jibes, along with the GOP’s Childers-Pelosi warning, again and again until election time.
Attacks aside, both men share similar backgrounds and similar positions on most issues. They both are 52 years old, born and reared in north Mississippi, married – Childers to Tami; Nunnelee to Tori – with grown children, attend Baptist churches, run small businesses and held elected positions 15 to 16 years before their first congressional runs.
Both suffered tragedies at relatively young ages: Childers lost his father when he was in high school; Nunnelee lost his eyesight while at college. It later was restored through surgery.
On the issues, both agree that north Mississippi needs more jobs and better educational opportunities, say Washington needs a balanced budget with less fluff, support gun rights and oppose abortion. Childers’ recent vote for additional federal education funds for the state has produced the most open disagreement between the two.
“Both Nunnelee and Childers are from the exact same ideological family, cut from the same close-knit, rural, conservative and church-going cloth,” said Marty Wiseman, executive director of the Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University. “It makes it very hard to differentiate. If you look at everything on both sides, it’s a dead heat. They’re both conservatives.”
Contact Emily Le Coz at (662) 678-1588 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Emily LeCoz / NEMS Daily Journal