Gloves off in race for 1st District House seat

By Emily LeCoz / NEMS Daily Journal


TUPELO – The 1st District congressional race has flared up this month with an ad duel ignited by incumbent Democratic candidate Travis Childers who, his opponent claims, is running scared.
In the ad, which began airing Monday, a woman’s voice calls Republican challenger Alan Nunnelee a “typical politician” who during his 16 years as a state senator has raised gas, property and hospital taxes despite signing a pledge against such hikes.
It then features Childers, who tells viewers he has kept his word to vote independently and oppose big spending budgets and Wall Street bailouts.
“I’ve done what I said I would do,” he says in the 32-second spot.
Childers’ media consultant, John Rowley, called it a comparative ad; Nunnelee spokesman Morgan Baldwin called it an attack.
On Thursday, his candidate released his own ad in response.
“Sadly, my opponent, Congressman Childers, is falsely attacking me,” says Nunnelee, standing in a sunlit pasture with a red tractor to his back. “The truth: I voted to cut taxes over 150 times.”
His ad goes on to talk about solutions for the district’s woes and ends with the candidate promising to hold U.S. Speaker of the House “Nancy Pelosi and the liberals accountable.”
But political observers both inside and outside the district say Childers’ ad was mild compared to what they predict will be an all-out war by the time voters hit the polls Nov. 2.
“It’s probably pretty tame when compared to other attack ads, but still, going after your opponent this early is a sign that Childers is going to have a very tough race ahead of him,” said Tim Sahd, editor of the House Race Hotline at the National Journal in Washington, D.C.
Sahd called Mississippi’s 1st District race among the most closely watched in the country and said the national Republican Party will funnel a lot of resources into securing the seat.
“If Republicans don’t win it this year against Childers, this is their best shot,” Sahd said. “Everything is going their way at this point. It’s the perfect storm.”
But Democrats will fight just as hard to keep the seat, which is why Sahd and Marty Wiseman, executive director of Mississippi State University’s John C. Stennis Institute of Government, expect the campaigning to get rough.
“I thoroughly expect both sides to pull out all the stops,” said Wiseman, who called the race razor thin when it came to either candidates’ chances.
Candidates with comfortable leads usually don’t air negative ads, Wiseman said. It’s only when a race gets tight does the campaign tone darken. And despite repeated public outcries against negative ads, research consistently shows they work, Wiseman said.
Baldwin vowed his candidate will stay above the fray.
“Our strategy is to stick to the issues,” he said. “Sen. Nunnelee believes the people of this district are tired of mudslinging, and he thinks people want to learn about the issues.”
But Rowley and Childers claim the GOP challenger has skirted one of the most important issues to date – his stance on the privatization of Social Security.
Childers is against it. Period.
Baldwin said Nunnelee, who was preparing for his daughter’s wedding this weekend, has explained his stance: He believes America must take care of those who paid into the system while exploring all options to fix it.
“Is privatization one of the options?” Baldwin said. “I don’t know if it’s one of the options. Sen. Nunnelee needs to get in there and see them all.”
The candidate won’t hesitate to take a firm position on Pelosi, however. Nunnelee has pounded his drum against the liberal San Francisco speaker since launching his campaign bid in January.
He repeatedly links her to Childers and says his first congressional vote, if elected, will be to oust her from her presiding role.
It’s a message echoed in House races nationwide as Republicans attempt to unseat incumbent Democrats, said Sahd. For these GOP hopefuls, he said, Pelosi has become the chief opponent instead of local Democrat on the ballot.
Rowley called the Pelosi-Childers connection a weak argument. He cited his candidate’s conservative voting record, his NRA and National Right to Life endorsements and his membership in the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrats as proof Childers isn’t liberal.
If that’s all Nunnelee can come up with, Rowley said, then “he’s coming up goose eggs.”
Baldwin disagrees: “The speaker dictates every bill, what comes to the floor, how it’s voted on,” he said. “Yes, I think that’s a huge issue, because Nancy Pelosi doesn’t represent anything that the people of north Mississippi are looking for.”
Childers said he’s not intimidated. He is proud of his record and cares about his constituents. He believes he’ll win another term in Congress.
“People don’t want someone who will just toe the party line; we are an independent people, and we want an independent congressman,” he said. “No one else in Congress gives two hoots about north Mississippi. That’s my job.”
And Nunnelee wants it – not just for him, he says, but for the nation.
“This campaign is about the future of America,” he said in an e-mail, “and I think people are motivated to step up and take our country back.”
Contact Emily Le Coz at (662) 678-1588 or emily.lecoz@djournal.com.