Tea Party mulls ouster of state’s incumbents

By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – Mississippi Tea Party leaders are steamed at the state’s Republican senators and congressmen and could seek new candidates to run against them in the 2012 primary.
“There is a statewide dissatisfaction with all of them,” said Mississippi Tea Party Chairman Roy Nicholsen. “The calculations and decisions on who could try to run an opposition against them, though, is one I’d rather not discuss with the press and don’t know what the timeline would be.”
Nicholsen said the state organization hasn’t formally launched an attack against the GOP incumbents, most of whom will face re-election next year. But he confirmed individual Tea Party movements across the state have begun to mount their own efforts.
Among them is the Mississippi Gulf Coast 912 Project, whose chairman, John Rhodes, said he specifically wants to replace Republican U.S. Sens. Roger Wicker and Thad Cochran. But he didn’t rule out wiping clean the state’s entire delegation.
“There’s going to be an anti-incumbent movement in the next election, I can tell you that already,” Rhodes said. “We sent these guys up to fight the battle on our behalf, and they’re not. We’re either going to get our heads together, or we’ll replace them.”
Rhodes called Cochran the “king of pork” and accused Wicker of snubbing his conservative base.
Wicker and the state’s four U.S. representatives face re-election next year, but Cochran won’t run again until 2014. Now in his sixth term, and at 73 years old, it’s unclear whether he will even seek another six years in office.
Next year’s congressional qualifying deadline is Jan. 13, with primary elections set for March 13.
Wicker’s office responded by citing the senator’s ranking by independent polls, including being named the country’s 10th most conservative senator by the National Journal and scoring a 96 percent from the American Conservative Union.
“Sen. Wicker is right where the voters of Mississippi are, and he’s going to continue to be focused on being the best senator that he can for Mississippi and be guided by his conservative principles,” said Wicker spokesman Rick Curtsinger.
Cochran spokesman Chris Gallegos said the senator “throughout his career has made a point of listening to all his constituents no matter where their beliefs fall on the political spectrum. Senator Cochran, a conservative Republican, uses constituent input to help guide him in making legislative and policy decisions that he believes are most beneficial to Mississippi and the nation.”
Tea Party dissatisfaction stems from what its members call a lack of bold, conservative action from the state’s congressional leaders, particularly as it relates to raising the national debt and funding health care reform.
They said Mississippi’s U.S. senators and representatives too often have traded their conservative values to compromise with more moderate and liberal leaders on a host of key issues.
First District U.S. Rep. Alan Nunnelee “voted against every single cut in spending and voted for every single increase in spending – 130 items – through May,” Nicholsen said. “You can’t compromise and move the football further down toward their goal line.”
Nunnelee recently defended his voting record after similar criticism surfaced from former political opponent Henry Ross. The freshman congressman told the Daily Journal earlier this week that, while he would rather not have raised the federal debt ceiling, it was necessary to avoid a federal government shutdown that would have affected Social Security checks, Medicare payments and pay for active military personnel.
The budget agreement adopted last month that included a raise in the debt ceiling made significant cuts, trimming discretionary spending in back-to-back years for the first time since World War II, Nunnelee noted.
It took years for the country to get into a financial mess, Nunnelee said, and getting out won’t be a quick fix.
Rhodes scoffed at that statement.
“That’s talking points coming right out of the Republican machine,” he said. “You hear that same analogy over and over: ‘It’s a big ship, we can’t turn fast.’ We don’t want a bunch of rhetoric, we want them to speak from the heart.”
Both Nunnelee and Wicker hail from Tupelo, where they have earned some support from local Tea Party members. And while that approval has waned slightly this year, it hasn’t completely evaporated, according to a local Tea Party leader.
Go further to right
Tupelo Tea Party Chairman Grant Sowell said both men have listened to local Tea Party concerns and have made some good decisions in Washington.
But he, too, wants to see them move even farther to the right. If not, they’ll likely face challenges from more conservative opponents.
Eupora Republican Ross already said he’ll probably enter the race against Nunnelee, whom he unsuccessfully battled in last year’s GOP congressional primary.
Sowell called Ross a “formidable challenger.”
“It’s Alan’s race to lose,” he said. “If the first-string quarterback ain’t doing so well, everyone wants to know what the second string can do.”
But the extent to which this loosely organized coalition of conservatives can affect next year’s congressional races remains to be seen.
No one knows how many voters actually consider themselves Tea Party members. Nicholsen said it’s impossible to even guess.
And though the organization was instrumental in ousting two congressional incumbents last year – Travis Childers in the north and Gene Taylor on the coast – their chances of a repeat appear murky.
For one thing, both Childers and Taylor were Democrats in the midst of a national anti-Democratic sweep. This time, though, the Tea Party is targeting Republicans. And despite its nonpartisan stance, most of the organization’s members consider themselves Republican, too.
“I will certainly give them their dues,” said Marty Wiseman, executive director of Mississippi State University’s John C. Stennis Institute of Government.
“They will make some noise,” he said. “But whether they can be successful in specifically ousting members of the current conservative, Republican congressional delegation, that’s a long step. I don’t think they’re that stout yet.”
emily.lecoz@journalinc.com