By Lloyd Gray/NEMS Daily Journal
A couple of years ago, any suggestion that Thad Cochran, Roger Wicker and Alan Nunnelee were insufficiently conservative for Mississippi tastes would have been met with a laugh. It’s a measure of how much the political climate has changed that there are now rumblings about intra-party challenges to all three.
Henry Ross, a Eupora attorney, seems set to take on Nunnelee in 2012 after losing to him in the Republican congressional primary last year. Leaders of the state’s loosely organized Tea Party groups have warned that Wicker may be in for a battle when he runs for re-election next year and that Cochran – who’s not scheduled to be on the ballot until 2014 – is in the cross hairs, too.
If this all seems a little crazy, that’s because it is – at least in the context of Mississippi politics. But this Tea Party insurgency is a national phenomenon, played out in the run-up to the debt ceiling vote in August, right before a deadline that could have produced a government default.
Under pressure from its far-right flank, the Republican congressional leadership nevertheless took the rational course of achieving what was possible with a divided Congress. The course the Tea Party-oriented Republican minority wanted to pursue wasn’t conservative but radical – and could have plunged the government into financial chaos felt by ordinary people across America.
Mississippi’s Republican senators and congressmen – Cochran, Wicker, Nunnelee, Gregg Harper from central Mississippi and Steven Palazzo from the south – all voted to cut spending, as the budget agreement called for, while avoiding a government shutdown and possible default by raising the debt ceiling. And now they’re catching heat from those who see that as a betrayal.
Congressional incumbency used to be a virtual guarantee of electoral invincibility in Mississippi. That all changed last year, when two of the state’s Democratic incumbents lost re-election bids. Nunnelee beat Travis Childers, a short-timer, and Palazzo knocked off Gene Taylor, who’d been in Washington for 21 years. So nothing is impossible, especially given the current voter unrest.
Yet Tea Party leaders may be overestimating their clout. Nunnelee got Tea Party-leaning votes in the general election, of course, but Ross and Angela McGlowan were the early favorites of active north Mississippi Tea Partiers in the primary. Similarly, Palazzo’s win in south Mississippi was too widely based for Tea Partiers to take full credit.
As for Wicker, well, it’s hard to fathom an insurgent Republican candidate who could muster the resources to defeat a senator with a 96 percent ranking from the American Conservative Union.
These guys are “establishment Republicans” as charged, but in Mississippi that’s not the political liability it may be elsewhere. The establishment here will be hard to beat in 2012, though it may be in for a rougher-than-usual ride.
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or firstname.lastname@example.org.