You know the political world is topsy-turvy when two Mississippi congressional incumbents lose on the same night, as Travis Childers and Gene Taylor did last week.
What Alan Nunnelee and Steven Palazzo pulled off was unprecedented in Mississippi. One incumbent ouster would have been unusual enough.
The last Mississippi incumbent congressman to lose an election was Democrat Ronnie Shows of the old 4th District in 2002, but that was after he and another incumbent, Republican Chip Pickering, were thrown together when the 2000 census cut the state from five to four House districts.
You have to go back to 1986 to find a non-incumbent challenger dislodging a sitting congressman. Democrat Mike Espy became Mississippi’s first modern-day black congressman by defeating Republican incumbent Webb Franklin in a Delta-dominated 2nd District designed to facilitate the election of an African-American.
Prior to that, a 1964 victory by Republican Prentiss Walker over longtime Democratic Rep. Arthur Winstead in east central Mississippi was the only loss by an incumbent since the 1940s. Walker became the state’s first 20th century Republican congressman by riding the coattails of Barry Goldwater, the GOP presidential nominee who swept the state after opposing Lyndon Johnson’s Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Walker got overly ambitious two years later, challenged Sen. James O. Eastland and was summarily dispatched to the political graveyard. It would take another six years and the simultaneous election to the House of Thad Cochran and Trent Lott in 1972 – both in districts of retiring incumbents – for Republicans to get back in the delegation for good. Those two have stayed in Washington closing in on 40 years, with Lott now a lobbyist but Cochran still ensconced in the Senate.
So the rule in Mississippi forever has been that we elect incumbents virtually for life, or at least as long as they care to stay. Before the long Senate run of the Cochran-Lott duo, there was Eastland and John Stennis together for more than 30 years, and of course there was Jamie Whitten’s incredible 53 years in the House.
The only time a House race would be truly up for grabs would be when the seat came open, as it did in 1994 when Roger Wicker was elected to succeed the retiring Whitten. Same with the Senate, as when Wicker was appointed after Lott’s unexpected resignation late in 2007.
All of this underscores the historical significance of the victories of Nunnelee and Palazzo. They both had to overcome Mississippi’s extraordinary attachment to our incumbents in Washington and our historic refusal to sacrifice the benefits of seniority for the catharsis of change.
Does this mean the days of automatic re-election of incumbents are over, or are we simply seeing the effects of a unique and especially intense political environment? Or could it be that this unique environment and its results will embolden challengers who would never have thought of taking on incumbents before – whatever the political context?
It could be argued that these two elections are historical anomalies, since Childers had been elected just two and a half years ago as a Democrat in a clearly Republican majority district while Taylor had managed to survive in previously GOP territory for 21 years as basically a Democrat in name only.
This election, seen from that perspective, merely shifts Mississippi’s 1st and 4th Districts back to their logical political standing, paving the way for possible safe long-term incumbencies for Nunnelee and Palazzo.
But the two new congressmen can reasonably expect, at least for a time, a newly vigilant degree of oversight from their constituents, notably those like the tea partiers who were active in politics for the first time and expect to see results to their liking. The fact that Wicker, the longtime House member and first-term Senate incumbent, has already been named as a possible target for Republican primary opposition in 2012 by the influential conservative blog redstate.com suggests we are living in a political age where all the old rules and assumptions may be out the window.
Mississippi Republicans may consider themselves immune from these developments – they’ve always been able to keep the party establishment and most of its candidates intact – but then Childers and Taylor probably felt their incumbency was a built-in advantage, given Mississippi’s history. You never know.
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
LLOYD GRAY / NEMS Daily Journal