LLOYD GRAY: 1st District factors involve more than the national scene

By Lloyd Gray/NEMS Daily Journal

Labor Day once was regarded as the official kickoff for fall general election campaigns. Things were pretty quiet in the summer and didn’t pick up until after the first Monday in September.
And at one time we didn’t hear much about Christmas until after Thanksgiving, either.
Seasons of all sorts have blurred and merged through the years. The November election has been a hot topic practically all this year.
It will get hotter quickly, and in Northeast Mississippi that means the 1st Congressional District campaign will shift into overdrive, as noted in today’s front-page story. Two well-financed candidates in a race that’s a toss-up means there will be no shelter from the coming political storm.
National political currents obviously are a factor in this race – witness the relentless emphasis by the Alan Nunnelee camp on Nancy Pelosi – but, as with 2008, this election will still likely be more about local politics than national.
That doesn’t mean Childers doesn’t have a bit of a burden to carry with his Democratic affiliation in this heavily Republican district. But it does mean that he is capable of overcoming it and winning enough independent or Republican-leaning voters through his demonstrated skill at old-fashioned retail politics.
Just as national politics watchers read too much into Childers’ victory, first in the special election and then in the general election in 2008, as a repudiation of George Bush – it was nothing of the sort – so the temptation is to see this year’s election as a strict referendum on Republican-Democratic politics nationally.
Nunnelee hopes it will be, which is why the core of his strategy is to make it so. If the decision is framed that way in the minds of most voters, Nunnelee wins, especially since the heavily Democratic African-American vote of 2008 isn’t likely to reappear this year without Barack Obama on the ballot.
But Childers has his own plans, aiming at Nunnelee’s soft spots: education funding and party-line voting in the Legislature. Childers, who unlike Nunnelee is combative by nature, will extol his own votes for extra education dollars from Washington and his regular bucking of the Democratic leadership on other key votes and hope that resonates with people who might not like it that he’s a Democrat – or that those education dollars were in a Democratic stimulus bill.
This race will still come down, for many voters, to personalities: Which candidate do they like best, with which candidate do they feel most comfortable. On this measurement, Childers competes well.
There’s something else going for Childers: He’s the incumbent. Yes, this is the year of anti-incumbent rage. We all know that. Yet Mississippi, as is often the case, may not quite be in sync with the prevailing national mood.
After all, Nunnelee – a 15-year office holder and state legislative leader, the candidate of the Republican establishment – fended off two anti-establishment, anti-incumbent candidates in the Republican primary, one (Angela McGlowan) who received an election day Twitter endorsement from Sarah Palin.
Childers has developed relationships. He’s done favors. He’s brought home some bacon, a thoroughly bipartisan practice for multiple political generations in Mississippi.
The last time an incumbent Mississippi congressman who was not thrown into another incumbent’s district lost a race for re-election was in 1964.
That’s a long time, and it could be we’re due for another. But the fact is, Mississippians tend to like their incumbent congressmen and senators, and send them back – again and again. Childers is not yet at the re-election on auto-pilot stage, as Roger Wicker was, and may never be, given the dynamics of this district and his party affiliation. But he’s already in, and that counts for a lot – even when everybody supposedly hates incumbents.
And yet …
Childers is already on the offensive, starting in August no less, which is a sure sign he knows he has his hands full. Nunnelee has a united party behind him, and he’s not from DeSoto County, and, yes, he’s got Nancy Pelosi to flog.
If this race goes national, it’s his. If not, Childers wins again. It’s that simple, and yet that complex.

Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or lloyd.gray@djournal.com.