State Sen. Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, is pondering a possible race for Congress, and this week he’ll go on a “listening tour” of Northeast Mississippi to hear what people think.
“What I am attempting to do is get a feel of what my future leadership role should be – whether I should look for an expanded role in Jackson or pursue opportunities in Washington,” Nunnelee said recently.
As chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Nunnelee is close to the zenith of power in the Mississippi Legislature.
He has contemplated running previously for statewide office, particularly lieutenant governor. That office is expected to be open in 2011 with Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant a probable candidate for governor.
But Nunnelee recently has been focusing on the possibility of a race for the 1st District U.S. House seat in 2010. Incumbent Democrat Travis Childers, former Prentiss County chancery clerk, won the seat last year in a special election and then secured a full two-year term in November.
If Nunnelee does decide to run for Congress, he’ll be trying to do what many of his colleagues have been unable to do – win an election to the U.S. House while serving in the Mississippi Legislature.
Nunnelee replaced Roger Wicker, who as state senator won the 1st District seat while serving in the Legislature.
But history is full of examples of incumbent state legislators going down in an electoral flameout when pursing another office, particularly a congressional seat.
“It will absolutely tax every ounce of energy and spunk to do both. It is almost impossible to do both,” said state House Public Health Chairman Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, who ran and lost in the special election for the then-open 1st District House seat in March 2008.
Tour of the region
Nunnelee, whose Senate district includes most of Lee County and a portion of Pontotoc, will conduct his “listening tour” across Northeast Mississippi, which makes up a substantial portion of the 1st District.
It will kick off Monday at 6 p.m. at the Tupelo Furniture Market, and includes later visits to Oxford (April 27), Corinth (April 28) and Columbus (May 7).
The 1st District is expected to be a national Republican priority since it was held for 13 years by Wicker of Tupelo before he was appointed and later elected to the U.S. Senate.
Childers’ win was considered an upset for a Democrat in a previously safe Republican seat.
Childers’ Republican opponent in both the special election and the November general election was Southaven Mayor Greg Davis, and a key element of the race both times was the geographic split between suburban DeSoto County and the rest of the district.
A Childers-Nunnelee matchup would pit two candidates from the more rural eastern side of the district anchored by Tupelo and Columbus.
Brad Morris, Childers’ chief of staff, said it is too early to be speculating about who will challenge his boss.
“Travis was just elected by the folks of the 1st District literally a few months ago because he shares their values and is independent enough to work in a bipartisan way,” Morris said, adding Childers is focused “on doing the job he was sent there to do.”
A hint of Nunnelee’s possible strategy against Childers came last week at the Tupelo gathering of a nationwide conservative protest of current federal spending.
Nunnelee held up a thick copy of the $787 billion federal stimulus bill and, while not mentioning Childers’ vote in support of it, said it “robbed from our future generations.”
Bucking the odds
If Nunnelee does run against Childers, he will be hoping to buck the odds. While Wicker was successful in running for Congress from the Legislature, many others have not been.
For instance, House Speaker Tim Ford, then of Baldwyn, and then-state Rep. Billy Wheeler of Tishomingo County ran unsuccessfully in that same 1994 race to replace the retiring Jamie Whitten.
In 1996, three state senators ran for the open 3rd District seat. They all lost.
“It’s very difficult to do both,” said Senate Finance Chairman Dean Kirby, R-Pearl, who was one of the three Senate members who came up short in 1996. “And I was not even a chairman then so I had more time.
“For any conscientious legislator, and I know Alan is very conscientious, it is difficult.”
Kirby added, “Alan is a good politician and good person. He will do a good job whatever he does … but he will be tired” if he chooses to run while serving in the Legislature.
Kirby said that in 1996 the Republican primary was in March, meaning he had to campaign during the heart of the legislative session.
He said he did not miss a vote in the Senate, but would get in his car and drive to Meridian, Starkville or other places in the district and be back in the Senate chamber the next morning.
Other legislators have faced similar obstacles. Ken Stribling, a former state House member from Jackson, ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. House, as did current Rep. Chuck Espy of Clarksdale and current Senate President Pro Tem Billy Hewes of Gulfport.
“It’s a logistical problem when the Legislature is in Jackson and the 1st District is up here” in Northeast Mississippi, Holland said.
When Holland ran in the special election in March 2008, it was in the midst of the legislative session. In 2010, the Republican primary is in June. The session should be over in March or April.
And should Nunnelee run and be fortunate enough not to have a primary opponent, he would not face Childers until November.
But as Appropriations Committee chair, Nunnelee has one of the most time-consuming jobs in the Legislature, and it requires commitments out of session.
“I would have to work hard to balance those commitments,” admitted Nunnelee, who is in the insurance business. “Of course, I have a regular job, too. It would be like holding down three jobs.”
Besides Wicker, there have been other successes. Gene Taylor, a then-state senator, was elected in the 1980s to the south Mississippi House seat he still holds.
And the legendary G.V. “Sonny” Montgomery of Meridian was serving in the state Senate when he was elected to the U.S. House, where he served from 1967 to 1997.
If Nunnelee chooses pursue the congressional seat, he said he would need to make that decision this year, though he might not announce it until 2010.
Bobby Harrison/Daily Journal