OPINION: Tough words signal the start of a campaign

Having trudged through a long discussion on the health care bill with Congressman Travis Childers the other day, we shifted the editorial board meeting’s focus to the $787 billion economic stimulus bill he supported.
We brought up the critics’ contention that it hasn’t worked. Childers disagreed, pointing to among other things the positive impact on otherwise imperiled school budgets in the 1st District. He observed that “the people who say the stimulus hasn’t worked don’t want it to work,” which is no doubt true for some who see it entirely in terms of who wins and loses politically.
But then the congressman, without prompting, abruptly launched the opening salvo of his 2010 re-election campaign. It was a both-guns-blazing round of fire at state Sen. Alan Nunnelee of Tupelo, who days before had made his intention to run for Childers’ seat official.
“What a hypocrite – he should be ashamed,” Childers said of Nunnelee, who has criticized the stimulus as “a trillion dollar mistake” but as Senate Appropriations Committee chairman used more than $500 million of it to fashion a state budget. Just to make sure we understood his point, Childers repeated: “To be so hypocritical as he is, is beyond me.”
This didn’t come across as an off-the-cuff remark. Childers seemed to have come prepared to say it when the time was right or the question was asked. Still, it was a bit unexpected – especially considering the measured, restrained tone of the rest of the interview.
The congressman obviously had decided it was message time for Nunnelee and anybody else who might run: Come on if you want, but you’ll have a fight on your hands.
Still, it’s a risky strategy to go after an opponent so strongly and directly so early – especially if you’re an incumbent who won decisively the last time out and the opponent is a challenger who still has to win his party’s nomination. Nunnelee certainly knew he’d hear the “hypocrite” charge sooner or later, so better to get it out on the table more than a year before any general election matchup between the two.
“It sounds to me like Mr. Childers is a little bit nervous,” Nunnelee said when contacted later by the Daily Journal. Of course, he didn’t speak directly to the accusation itself.
Conventional political strategy would say Childers should, at this point anyway, be above the fray and certainly not give the appearance of being overly concerned by a prospective opponent. But nothing has been especially conventional – at least in the current political way – about how Childers has gotten where he is.
He had to win five rounds of voting in 2008 to get to Congress and keep his seat, first in a special election and then in a regular one in a district that was supposed to be solidly in Republican hands. He did it the old-fashioned, retail politics way, meeting the people and pressing the flesh in an expanded version of his years as a courthouse fixture in Prentiss County. He was a darkhorse when the race began. He became a national story.
Now he’s trying to navigate a political minefield that finds him a popular grassroots politician representing a conservative congressional district while a member of a party whose leaders, both in Congress and the White House, are well to the left of his constituency. Thus far, he’s demonstrated great skill at that navigation, joining the conservative Blue Dog Democratic coalition in the House and bucking the leadership on some big votes – including, apparently, the upcoming vote on health care.
Yet the Republicans’ clear intentions to target him in 2010, noted in the Journal interview after the anti-Nunnelee fusillade, bring an equally robust retort. “They think they own this seat,” he said of the GOP. The people own it, Childers said, and they’ll make that clear at the polls.
That’s tough talk, maybe too tough at this stage. Nunnelee gets to be the guy being shot at, which has the effect of raising his profile and his stature in the race. Childers obviously thinks it’ll take Nunnelee down a notch, but it could just as easily help solidify activist Republicans around a candidate who, while he’s the GOP establishment favorite, is by no means home-free for the party nomination just yet.
Here’s the good news: This opening argument of the next congressional race is about meaningful policy differences, not extraneous, trivial stuff. If it stays that way, we can be grateful – even when the words get harsh and the campaigning starts too early.

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