LLOYD GRAY: 1st District's voters can't be pigeonholed

In a year in which the national political mood seems bad for incumbents of any stripe, Republican primary voters in the 1st Congressional District opted last week for political experience over two self-proclaimed anti-establishment candidates trying to catch the prevailing winds.
Alan Nunnelee’s no-runoff win over Henry Ross and Angela McGlowan would have been expected a few months ago when the campaign was just shaping up. Nunnelee was, after all, the candidate with the most political experience, the backing of key state and national party leaders, and by far the most money in the GOP race.
But strange things have been happening since then, including the toppling of seemingly secure incumbents or party establishment candidates in several states, and who was to say what the mood might be in North Mississippi?
Turns out it wasn’t quite what we’ve seen elsewhere.
The electorate wasn’t particularly motivated, first of all. Turnout was low.
Those who did turn out gave the victory to a man who’s been in the Legislature 15-plus years and who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, a premier position of power and influence in the state Capitol. His opponents sought to use that status to their advantage, but the attempt by Ross and especially McGlowan to paint Nunnelee as somehow RINO – Republican in name only – and insufficiently conservative fell flat because it just didn’t ring true.
While the fledgling Tea Party movement in the district took an active role in the race that was ostensibly neutral, it’s safe to say that many if not most of its adherents favored either McGlowan or Ross. Sarah Palin’s election-day Twitter endorsement of McGlowan – who got just 15 percent of the vote – was a bizarre bit of evidence of that sentiment from the Tea Partiers’ favorite star. But Nunnelee withstood the albatross of political experience, suggesting that some voters might even consider his years in state government an asset.
One of the intriguing things about the 1st District’s voters in recent years is that you can’t pigeonhole them. After Roger Wicker held the congressional seat for 13 years, it seemed safely in Republican hands for the long haul. Then along came Travis Childers, an old-fashioned grassroots politician connected to courthouse crowds across North Mississippi, and all of a sudden the seat was back in Democratic hands.
Childers’ skillful weaving of economic populism with a voting record that reassures business people and a social conservatism that blunts attacks from the right makes him the only kind of Democrat capable of getting and holding the 1st District seat. But it won’t be easy in the fall.
Childers benefited in 2008 from a nasty Republican primary in which supporters of former Tupelo Mayor Glenn McCullough were turned off to the eventual Republican standard-bearer, Southaven Mayor Greg Davis. Many either stayed home when Davis and Childers squared off in the special election and then later in the fall, or voted for Childers.
Nunnelee managed to emerge from this Republican primary without much blood spilled. He took jabs from his opponents, but they weren’t ugly or damaging, and he never responded in a way that could make their supporters mad. Even though the aftermath of the primary was weird – Ross refusing to formally concede, McGlowan firing some verbal shots at Nunnelee – you don’t get the feeling that Republican infighting will be a big issue in the fall.
Childers also didn’t have to contend with an opponent from the eastern side of the district either, much less from the populous Tupelo/Lee County area. And in November 2008, Barack Obama was on the ballot to ensure a large black voter turnout, which benefits anyone running under the Democratic label.
Of course one of the obstacles for Childers this fall will be escaping the Republicans’ inevitable tie-in of him with Pelosi/Reid/Obama, even though his voting record on the major issues is more Republican than Democrat. The fact that he sits on the Democratic side of the aisle helps enable those liberals to stay in power, Nunnelee and the Republicans will argue.
All that said, Childers is a formidable political force, and underestimating his vote-getting power would be a serious mistake. He’s already shown he can transcend party labels. He’s delivered on some local issues and kept his political fences mended. You simply will not find a more determined candidate and campaigner.
It’s going to be a heck of a race.

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

Lloyd Gray/NEMS Daily Journal