By Robbie Ward
BOONEVILLE – Real estate broker and appraiser Travis Childers can stick around drinking coffee and telling another story these days.
But the other Childers, the former U.S. Congressman and current Democratic Party nominee for U.S. Senate, will soon kick into high gear with a belief he can win, especially if his opponent’s name isn’t Thad Cochran.
Mississippi’s primary elections Tuesday resulted in Childers, 56, easily advancing to the general election on Nov. 4. National and state political observers largely ignored the Democratic ticket.
Voters seemed less interested, too.
All of the attention focused on the Republican side – bare-knuckle political match-up involving gobs of special interest money, a criminal arrest of an overzealous blogger, and unfinished business between six-term incumbent U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, 76, and state Sen. Chris McDaniel, an energized Tea Party favorite and a lesser-known candidate.
McDaniel edged Cochran by 1,386 votes but still fell short of the required 50 percent plus one votes to advance to the general election. They’ll face off June 24 in a runoff election.
Childers said he doesn’t like to speak in hypotheticals about which opponent he prefers, but a few minutes of political conversation make clear he’s gunning for McDaniel. Childers visited with the Daily Journal at Fisher’s Restaurant in Booneville for an extended interview this week.
The former Congressman praised Cochran’s service and suggested he’ll seek to represent Mississippi in a similar fashion, working to bring federal resources to the nation’s poorest state.
“I get so tired of seeing my fellow Mississippians barely getting by,” Childers said. “I know what it’s like to barely get by and it’s not any fun.”
Back on the campaign trail
Childers talks of his blue collar roots – a factory worker mom and a dad who repaired cars. The candidate received federal financial aid to attend college. The Booneville Democrat owns a real estate business and a nursing home and served for years as Prentiss County chancery clerk.
In 2008, he won the 1st Congressional District special election after then-Gov. Haley Barbour appointed Roger Wicker to the U.S. Senate after Trent Lott vacated the office. Childers served until January 2011, losing re-election in 2010 during a year Tea Party support in the GOP help sweep dozens of Democrats out of office.
Ironically, the Tea Party helping to kick Childers out of Congress may factor into a precarious path to a promotion to the U.S. Senate.
He won’t outright say it, but the Booneville native has positioned himself to run against McDaniel, buoyed by local and national Tea Party supporters and organizations.
McDaniel speaks of limited government and restricted federal spending. In October when he announced his candidacy, McDaniel used words offensive to some Mississippians.
“For too long, Mississippi has been a welfare state,” McDaniel said in a YouTube video. “We’ve become addicted to federal monies.”
The video has disappeared from McDaniel’s online video channel.
Childers seems prepared for an aggressive fight with two clear choices. He calls McDaniel’s words insulting to the state.
“I resent when people call us lazy or a welfare state,” he said. “I’ll put our work ethic against anybody.”
In an attack against Cochran during the primary, McDaniel rips the long-standing Senator’s reputation for leveraging billions of federal dollars to Mississippi for public universities, rural communities, farmers, infrastructure improvements and economic development.
McDaniel has said the Mississippi projects receiving federal funding may have merit but the practice of Congressional earmarking has brought too much wasteful spending throughout the nation.
Childers said he’ll directly engage McDaniel through debates and other outlets. Cochran’s campaign has refused to debate the GOP challenger during the primary race.
The Democrat positions himself similarly to Cochran in relation to delivering federal resources to the state. However, Childers appears ready to more aggressively defend the practice of using federal tax dollars collected from California, New York, Florida and the rest of the nation for Mississippi projects.
“I’m going to ask what he wants to cut out,” Childers said. “I’m not willing for Mississippi to starve while all these other states flourish.”
Childers isn’t alone in withholding attacks against his GOP opponent. Necessary campaign contributions haven’t materialized for the blue dog Democrat who appeals to some conservative voters. His political war chest seems unusually empty for a serious candidate.
Childers’ only Federal Election Commission campaign finance filing since he entered the race shows raising only $51,600 in contributions for the month of March. For context, Tupelo Mayor Jason Shelton raised more than $87,000 in 2013 as part of his election to local office.
Most serious candidates in competitive U.S. Senate races plan to raise a minimum of $5 million, money provided from individuals and political action committees from throughout the country.
National Democratic Party contributors won’t likely pump money into the general election unless they feel comfortable Childers has a legitimate shot at winning. National and state political scientists give Childers no shot at defeating Cochran and view victory unlikely in a McDaniel matchup.
A Mississippi Democrat was last elected to the U.S. Senate in 1982, a year after former President Ronald Reagan began his first term. John C. Stennis was reelected for the sixth time, and retired after his term.
However, Cochran’s GOP supporters and many Democrats see a McDaniel misstep in the general election as a potential opportunity for Republicans to lose a once-safe position.
Ronald Rapoport, a professor at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, has researched factionalism within the Republican Party, particularly Tea Party activists and super PACs that fund them. He said Childers shouldn’t hold his breath in hopes of a November win.
“You’re not looking at a state like Indiana, Missouri or another state more evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats,” he said. “I’d certainly be willing to put my money on the Republicans retaining that seat regardless.”
Club for Growth, the fiscally conservative group operating a super PAC to unseat Cochran, issued a news release this week calling Childers’ record in Congress as liberal.
Childers has voted against the Affordable Care Act, opposes gay marriage and opposes abortion. He plans to defend his record in the general election.
But until June 25, he’ll keep trying to raise money and assemble a campaign team capable of defeating a Republican in one of the most conservative states in the nation.
Childers said the tone of the GOP race is embarrassing, but he came short of promising a polite campaign himself.
“I’ll have as much respect for either of those candidates as they’ll allow me to have,” he said.