It was, as dinner with a member of Congress goes, a pretty low-key affair. My wife and I met U.S. Rep. Alan Nunnelee of Tupelo and his wife, Torie, for a hamburger after work on a Friday night. Nunnelee, who I was in college with at Mississippi State back in the 1970s, has been a friend since those days.
But I came to know him better after college than during our days together in student government at MSU. He was a frequent and reliable source during his days in the state Senate, where he rose to a position of significant leadership that set him on a path to Congress.
Nunnelee came to the state Senate in 1994 in a special election to fill the unexpired term of former state senator and current U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, then reeled off wins in the next three state general elections to serve over three terms in the Senate. He served as Senate Appropriations Committee chairman.
In 2010, Nunnelee unseated incumbent Democratic U.S. Rep. Travis Childers by defeating Childers and seven independent or minor party candidates including Constitution Party candidate Gail Giaramita, independents A.G. Baddley, Les Green, Rick “Rico” Hoskins, and Wally Pang, Libertarian Party candidate Harold M. Taylor and Reform Party candidate Barbara Dale Washer.
Why? The predicted erosion of conservative votes from Nunnelee to the seven others conservative challengers to Childers didn’t materialize in the polls and with the east-west split that powered Childers’ 2008 win over Republican former Southaven Mayor Greg Davis absent, Nunnelee was the candidate best positioned to win a conservative district that still has a healthy dose of New Deal roots.
In the 2014 race, that’s still true. Nunnelee’s quest for a third term is far less crowded than his 2010 race. He is the only Mississippi member of the U.S. House to escape a primary challenge, but in November he will face the challenge of minor party candidates Libertarian Danny Bedwell, Lajena Walley of the Reform Party, and the winner of the Democratic Primary between Ron Dickey and Rex Weathers.
Bedwell of Columbus, is chairman of the state’s Libertarian Party and a retired U.S. Navy diver. While his service to his country should be honored, he’s a long shot to unseat Nunnelee.
The June 3 Democratic Primary pits Dickey and Weathers against each other for the nod as the principal challenger to Nunnelee. Horn Lake’s Dickey is a former police officer with a Desert Storm war record of service. Weathers also has a military record in the Navy, but is best known as a perennial candidate for local, state and federal office.
In short, Nunnelee’s challengers are candidates with little to no campaign organizations, campaign funding, or plausible chances of unseating a conservative Republican with a seat on the House Appropriations Committee. Since the days of “Cousin” Jamie Whitten, it seems that Mississippi’s 1st Congressional District has maintained an almost permanent seat on the House Appropriations Committee.
Two observations over a hamburger with an old classmate: First, Torie Nunnelee is a formidable campaign asset in a race that by rights could be run with less political octane. A former school nurse with a heart for helping troubled children and youth; Mrs. Nunnelee never meets a stranger and maintains an uncanny contact with her husband’s district.
Second, in a district that features a credible Tea Party component in addition to numbers that have made electing a Democrat possible in the last six years, Nunnelee has made peace within the various camps within his own party and has worked to build coalitions in the rural hill counties in the district where most of the local officials are still Democrats. That’s a fine, tough political line to walk.
While we talked politics for a bit, much of the conversations between the four of us were about children and grandchildren, mutual friends and SEC baseball standings. The latter part of the conversation hadn’t changed much in the last 30 years.
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at (601) 507-8004 or firstname.lastname@example.org. He is thhe chief spokesman for Mississippi State University.