BOBBY HARRISON: Race matches long-serving history and momentum

JACKSON – Travis Childers and other Democrats in the 1st Congressional District of Mississippi must be thinking that if they hold on through this election, things will get easier.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that conditions are not favorable for Democrats during this election cycle. The president’s party routinely loses House and Senate seats during mid-term elections.
And a still-teetering economy makes it doubly hard for many Democrats.
Childers, a first-term U.S. House member from Booneville, has it harder than most Democrats. In 2008, when Childers first was elected to the open seat with 54.5 percent of the vote, Republican presidential nominee John McCain garnered a whopping 62 percent of the vote in the 1st District, which encompasses most of Northeast Mississippi.
Those factors have Republicans and their nominee, state Sen. Alan Nunnelee of Tupelo, feeling good about the November election. They are chomping at the bit.
But Childers is an excellent, down-home campaigner with a strong grassroots network of support – built at least in part through his connections in courthouses across the north Mississippi district because of his tenure as chancery clerk of Prentiss County.
If Childers pulls out this election, more than likely he will represent the 1st District in the U.S. House for a long time, if that is what he wants.
Much of what is now the 1st District was represented for more than five decades by Democrat Jamie Whitten. Like many Southern politicians, Whitten was an avowed segregationist when first elected, but later became a key member of the national Democratic leadership as House Appropriations chair and voted for much of what were viewed as the liberal programs of the national Democrats.
Despite voting as a national Democrat in a strongly Republican-leaning district, Whitten was re-elected repeatedly by wide margins with primarily token opposition in the 1st District.
Roger Wicker of Tupelo, now a U.S. senator, captured the district in a 1994 “wave election” for Republicans during the first term of the Bill Clinton administration. Interestingly, many people compare this election to 1994 and believe the Republicans will enjoy similar success, if not even more, this time around.
In 1994, Whitten, by that time in deteriorating health, did not run for re-election.
In some ways Childers and Whitten are similar. Both went to great pains to look after the needs of their district. While I never saw a young Jamie Whitten up close, it appears that Childers is a much more dynamic campaigner. And Childers is more conservative than Whitten was.
Another key difference might be that Whitten campaigned in a far different, less partisan era and at a time when there was no such thing as the 24-hour news cycle that can savage candidates of both political parties.
Plus, during Whitten’s time there was still some leftover Civil War-related opposition to Republicans, though that was quickly fading by the final years of his tenure.
If Childers does hold on for victory, it would be more apt to compare him to fiercely independent Gene Taylor of the 4th District in south Mississippi than to Whitten.
The conservative Taylor first won the seat in 1989 and has been re-elected for the most part with ease since then, even though his district could be the most Republican in the state. In 2008, it went for McCain by a 67-32 margin.
But as a testament to the Democratic disadvantage in this year’s elections, many observers see the 4th District race between Taylor and state Rep. Steve Palazzo, R-Biloxi, as competitive.

Contact Bobby Harrison, the Daily Journal’s Capitol Bureau Chief at bobby.harrison@djournal.com, or call (601) 353-3119.

BOBBY HARRISON / Daily Journal Jackson Bureau