LLOYD GRAY: Family feud or just noise?

By Lloyd Gray/NEMS Daily Journal

On Tuesday we’ll learn how serious the Republican family squabble is in Mississippi.
The two GOP congressional freshmen who ousted incumbent Democrats in 2010, Alan Nunnelee in the 1st District and Steven Palazzo in the 4th, have upset a segment of their constituency by voting with the House Republican leadership instead of the Tea Party-oriented insurgents. That’s brought them forceful primary challenges incumbents usually don’t have to bear.
Similarly, Roger Wicker is being challenged from the right by two Senate candidates with Tea Party ties, though unlike Nunnelee’s opponents, they haven’t had an active campaign up this way.
The presidential primary, which has brought two of the remaining four candidates to Tupelo – Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich – is up for grabs. The question is how much it will ultimately matter, given Mitt Romney’s growing lead in delegates.
In the 1st District race, the vote will be a test of how radical an approach voters want their congressman to take to the problems in Washington. Henry Ross, a Eupora attorney who never really stopped running against Nunnelee after finishing second and missing a primary runoff against him two years ago, believes shutting down the government rather than agreeing to compromises that raise the debt ceiling is what the people want. “Radical” is a word he’s not shy about using.
Nunnelee takes a more pragmatic approach in line with the House Republican leadership: Get what’s doable with the Senate and White House still under Democratic control and don’t give the opposition reason to call you reckless and irresponsible.
The third candidate in the race, trucking company owner Robert Estes of Southaven, is of generally similar mind to Ross but comes at it from the angle of the common-sense regular guy who’s going to do things a different way in Washington.
Nunnelee’s campaign strategy of attempting to stay above the fray and avoiding debates or joint appearances with his opponent is a classic incumbent approach – especially incumbents who believe they have a comfortable lead. And in spite of a spirited challenge from Ross and Estes, anything other than an outright Nunnelee win in Tuesday’s primary would be a surprise.
Still, the competition allows for a referendum on demands for an even more confrontational approach by the GOP in Washington. Primary victories by Nunnelee, Palazzo and Wicker would be at least in part a rejection of Tea Party-favored tactics.
There’s room for a little mischief here, since the Republican primary is open to all voters and some Democrats could decide to cast their votes in ways that could make things interesting. Only one race – among three relatively unknown contenders to take on Wicker – is on the Democratic primary ballot. So the GOP won’t be strictly a measure of partisan Republican opinion.
Nevertheless, it will measure how much of an impact those who reject the traditional Mississippi Republican establishment have had in the last couple of years. It could be their high water mark – or the ebbing of their tide.
LLOYD GRAY is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or lloyd.gray@journalinc.com.