By Lloyd Gray/NEMS Daily Journal
Travis Childers’ election to Congress in 2008 was as unlikely as his defeat two years later was inevitable, given the political tenor of the times.
Childers, who combined his 16 years as a grassroots courthouse politician with a divided Republican Party to win a stunning congressional upset in 2008, fell victim Tuesday to a national tidal wave that returned the 1st Congressional District to the GOP column.
And it wasn’t even close.
Republican challenger Alan Nunnelee, a veteran state senator from Tupelo, succeeded in nationalizing the 1st District race and making it a referendum on the unpopular Democratic Congress and its liberal leadership, especially House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and the Obama administration.
What had been considered a tight race in the end turned into a Nunnelee rout of the Democratic incumbent, whose credentials as a member of the conservative-to-moderate Blue Dog coalition in the House failed to mollify voters this time around.
Childers, 52, a Booneville businessman, had been chancery clerk of Prentiss County for 16 years before he entered the special congressional election held after Roger Wicker, the 13-year Republican House incumbent, was appointed to the U.S. Senate by Gov. Haley Barbour in early 2008.
In a year with five separate election days – a regular primary, primary runoff, special election, special election runoff and general election – Childers led a highly competitive field each time.
He mixed a pro-gun, anti-abortion message with a pledge to support education and limit federal spending while defending popular government programs like Social Security from alleged Republican assault.
His final two wins in 2008 came in the May special election runoff and November general election against Southaven Mayor Greg Davis, who had angered supporters of former Tupelo Mayor Glenn McCullough in a bitter GOP primary. McCullough refused to endorse Davis after he narrowly lost the nomination.
The divided Republican Party, an east-west split in the district that pitted Davis’ populous DeSoto County – a suburb of Memphis – against the more rural eastern side of the district in which Childers had a large grassroots network of friends and supporters, and an energetic and aggressive campaign by Childers were keys in the dual victories.
While it was misread by some national political observers as a repudiation of the Bush administration in a “red” district, Childers’ success still shocked the Republican establishment, which considered the 1st District safe territory. Almost immediately after his election, efforts began to return the seat to GOP hands, and Nunnelee publicly signaled in the summer of 2009 that he would run in 2010.
Childers, meanwhile, navigated a cautious course in Congress, voting against the bipartisan bailout of financial institutions in late 2008 and most of the major initiatives of the Obama administration and the Democratic congressional leadership such as health care reform and cap and trade legislation.
But he voted for the $800 billion stimulus bill in 2009, which although it included a large tax cut came to be seen primarily as a symbol of the excessive spending of the Obama administration and the Democratic Congress.
Childers defended this vote and his subsequent support for the 2010 congressional assistance to state governments – which included significant funds for local school districts – as best for his constituents.
Nunnelee, meanwhile, zeroed in on those votes as a key difference between himself and Childers, casting them as burdening future generations by increasing the national debt.
The narrative of the campaign was clear from the start, and after Nunnelee disposed of two Republican primary opponents who campaigned against him from the right, the GOP closed ranks and never wavered in its determination to retake the seat.
This time, there was no geographic divide, either, with Nunnelee locking down the Tupelo-Lee County Republican constituency and surrounding rural counties that had bolted to Childers in 2008. And the voters, including the Tea Party movement which Childers ignored, were unmoved by the incumbent’s emphasis on working across party lines.
Childers’ brief congressional tenure will now likely be seen as a temporary blip on the Republican radar in north Mississippi, barring some unexpected shift in political leanings in the next few years. His winning the seat was a combination of personal characteristics, hard work and extenuating circumstances, but he couldn’t hold on in a conservative district as his party – even if without his assent – lurched more decidedly to the left.