By Jeff Amy/The Associated Press
JACKSON — Some of Mississippi’s Republican members of Congress face opposition Tuesday from people who were supporters two years ago.
In 2010, tea party members helped eject Democrats Travis Childers of Booneville and Gene Taylor of Bay St. Louis from Congress and elected Republicans Alan Nunnelee of Tupelo and Steven Palazzo of Biloxi.
Now, some tea party figures are disenchanted.
Robert Estes of Southaven, challenging Nunnelee in north Mississippi’s 1st District, is a tea party stalwart. Former Eupora Mayor Henry Ross, making his second run for the 1st District, is also courting tea party support in the GOP primary.
Also steeped in the tea party is Ron Vincent of Hattiesburg, who is challenging Palazzo in the Republican primary in south Mississippi’s 4th District. Cindy Burleson of Hattiesburg is also a GOP primary candidate there.
In the central 3rd District, U.S. Rep. Gregg Harper of Pearl faces Republican challenger Robert J. Allen of Sturgis, co-founder of a Starkville tea party group.
Finally, U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker of Tupelo will face Robert Maloney of Madison and E. Allen Hathcock of Stewart on the Republican ballot.
The challengers have raised far less money than the incumbents, and are widely perceived as underdogs, though no polling data has been made public. But tea party opponents are soldiering on, fueled by unhappiness with votes to increase the national debt ceiling and continue funding the federal government.
“I campaigned for Palazzo when he ran. I donated to him. I voted for him, and I’m just disappointed,” said Dick Przybelski of Hattiesburg, who’s now supporting Vincent.
Critics say Nunnelee, Palazzo and others have been too willing to follow Republican leaders, whose strategy opponents find ineffective against President Barack Obama.
“I think he’s doing what he’s told to by the speaker of the House and other Republican leaders who are not tea party conservatives,” Grant Sowell, director of a Tupelo tea party group, said of Nunnelee.
Vincent said: “Obama got everything he wanted and Mr. Palazzo has done nothing to slow him down.”
“I’ll be the first person to say we haven’t done enough,” Nunnelee replied. “We could have done a whole lot more if we didn’t have to deal with a Senate led by Harry Reid and President Obama.”
Both Nunnelee and Palazzo defend their votes to raise the debt ceiling and keep the government operating.
“They didn’t send me to Washington to shut down government or to default on our national debt,” Palazzo said.
“We’ve got to find a way to cut spending, but shutting down the government is not a tool that should be used as a political ploy,” said Nunnelee, who has been a particular target.
A group called Expose Nunnelee Superpac has bought a series of newspaper ads showing him with a tricorn hat superimposed on his head and labeling him “Benedict Alan.” It’s unclear how much the group has raised or who its contributors are, as it has yet to file a full report with the Federal Election Commission.
Lindsay Lipscomb is the spokeswoman for the group. She refused to name any other members, although papers filed with the FEC show Columbus resident Dennis Holliman as the treasurer.
“It’s not that we’re anti-Nunnelee at all,” Lipscomb said. “It’s just that we want him to start voting the way he said he was going to.”
John Rhodes of D’Iberville, chairman of South Mississippi Tea Party, said he’s not sure how he will vote, but he believes most members of his group will choose Vincent. Of Palazzo, he said: “We’d rather have him than a Democrat, but for a tea party group, it’s not quite where it needs to be.”
Some outside observers find challengers’ claims that Mississippi’s current Republican crop is too moderate to be absurd
For example, Mississippi State University political scientist Marty Wiseman described Nunnelee as “one of the most conservative folks I’ve ever met.”
He said tea party purists are unwilling to accept compromise, historically a key feature of American lawmaking.
“One of the problems we’ve got right now is the tea party insisting that compromise is not in their vocabulary,” Wiseman said.
Even opponents acknowledge that all the incumbents may win. But Sowell said he hopes primary challenges will push the congressmen closer to tea party principles.
“If they win, at least they’re challenged,” he said. “Hopefully, they’ll say … ‘We need to listen to the people back home.’”