By Hastings Wyman –
The election to fill the congressional seat left vacant by the death earlier this year of Rep. Alan Nunnelee (R) in Mississippi’s 1st District is developing quickly now that the March 27 filing deadline has passed. Thirteen candidates filed for the seat. The election will be held on May 12 and an all-but-certain runoff will be on June 2.
In a special election, party affiliation is not designated on the ballot, but 12 of the candidates are self-described Republicans to only one Democrat. The district is heavily Republican; in 2012, Mitt Romney led President Obama in the district by 25 points.
The district has 22 counties and includes the cities of Tupelo, Oxford, Columbus and Southhaven. The largest county is DeSoto, a bedroom community for Memphis across the state line in Tennessee. However, no one from the county is in the race, making it a prime media target for all of the candidates.
As for issues, “The twelve Republicans are running against President Obama and the Democrats in congress,” says public affairs executive Hayes Dent.
Of interest, none of the politicos identified with state Sen. Chris McDaniel (R), who narrowly lost a primary challenge to US Sen. Thad Cochran (R) last year, entered the race. Moreover, so far, McDaniel’s United Conservatives Fund has not endorsed a candidate.
Insiders are reluctant to name the favorites in the race. “No one has really broken out,” says Dent, who notes that the race “may be more interesting in the runoff.” “It’s hard to say who are the frontrunners,” says a political consultant. “It’s anybody’s race,” says another consultant.
Among the candidates with significant political muscle are:
Mike Tagert, the Northern District Transportation Commissioner, starts out strong because his current district is nearly identical to the 1st District. He doesn’t actually live in the district, but in nearby Starksville. Tagert is also running in November for another term as Transportation Commissioner, but will withdraw if he wins the congressional race.
Boyce Adams, a Columbus businessman, has been on television for three weeks, with a soon-to-be-aired attention-getting spot about how many candidates can fit in a phone booth. He ran for Transportation Commissioner in the Northern District in 2011, which helps him with name ID. He should also benefit from a school referendum in his home bailiwick, Lowndes County, which will be held the same day as the congressional election.
District Attorney Trent Kelly has a large base in Tupelo and in the Northeast corner of the state, accounting for about one-third of the district. The Clarion-Ledger said he has “populist, prosecutorial, courthouse appeal.” Kelly’s campaign manager also managed the late Congressman Nunnelee’s campaigns
Sam Adcock, a former aide to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and an executive with Airbus Helicopters, a subsidiary of Daimler-Benz, has an entertaining spot dubbed “The Interview,” which features a series of folks – black, white, young, old, et al – behind a desk interviewing candidate Adcock for the job of congressman. Although the ad has so far only been on the web, it “has created a lot of buzz,” says a consultant.
Quentin Whitwell is an attorney and a former member of the Jackson city council who recently moved to Oxford to run for the congressional seat. He is expected to spend a lot of money.
Two of the state’s GOP centers of power, Gov. Phil Bryant and Haley Barbour’s public affairs firm, have taken no public stance in this race. The scuttlebutt, however, which surfaced in the Clarion-Ledger in February, is that Bryant’s friends probably favor Adams, while the influential Barbours are probably behind Tagert.
Other candidates, anyone of whom could sneak into the runoff with a plurality or second-place, include Columbus businessman Danny Bedwell; state Sen. Nancy Collins; dentist Edward “Doc” Holliday; physician Starner Jones; Itawamba County prosecutor Chip Mills, whose father was a Supreme Court justice representing the 1st District; Tupelo attorney Greg Pirkle; Henry Ross, a former mayor of Eupora and former senior counsel to the US Attorney; and Tishomingo County attorney Daniel Sparks.
Walter Zinn is the only Democrat and only African American in the race in a district that is 26% black. Zinn is a resident of Pontotoc and former aide to several Jackson mayors. Labels aren’t noted on the ballot, but if he got the money to get out the word that he is the only Democrat, he might make it to the runoff. He would be highly unlikely, however, to win the runoff in this very Republican district. Before filing opened, several prominent Democrats were being mentioned as potential candidates, but none of them decided to run.