It is certainly the most crowded race for Mississippi’s First District Congressional seat in the memory of anyone alive. Thirteen candidates –12 Republicans and one Democrat– are contesting the non-partisan election to be held today, May 12th.
Whitten and Wicker split 66 years of service
Congressman Jamie L. Whitten represented northern Mississippi in the U.S. House of Representatives for 53 years before retiring from the political battles in 1994. Whitten’s five decades of congressional service notwithstanding, it was a foregone conclusion that his successor would probably be a Republican.
Six Republicans filed for the seat in the primary that year. Roger Wicker led in the first primary, receiving 26.6% of the 27,000 votes cast. In the primary runoff he got 53% of the vote, defeating attorney Grant Fox. In that year’s general election Wicker trounced Democrat Bill Wheeler, earning 63% of the 127,745 votes cast. Wicker easily won re-election six times before being appointed to the U.S. Senate in 2007 when Senator Trent Lott suddenly and unexpectedly resigned from the Senate just a few days before his brother-in-law, Richard Scruggs, was indicted for bribing a Mississippi judge.
Childers and Nunnelee serve about seven years
Travis Childers, a Democrat, won the May 2008 special election to replace Wicker, and then won election to a full term the following November. With increasing numbers of Americans of all political persuasions growing more and more disenchanted with two long-running, never ending wars in the Middle East, 2008 was not a good year for George W. Bush’s GOP. Childers’s congressional career was short-lived. Three Republicans, Alan Nunnelee, Henry Ross, and Angela McGlowan ran in the 2010 Republican Primary. Nunnelee drew 52% of the vote in the first primary and easily rolled over Childers in the general election. Nunnelee did not have a serious challenger when he was re-elected two more times, although Ross did run against him again in the 2012 primary, drawing only 29% of the vote to Nunnelee’s 57%. Nunnelee was presumed by most to be fatally ill with cancer and had no challenger for the Republican nomination in 2014.
However, when Nunnelee succumbed to cancer in February, the governor called a special non-partisan election to fill the congressional seat, and it became one of the most popular jobs in north Mississippi.
Several candidates court Mississippi Tea Party voters
Not surprisingly, Henry Ross is running yet again. Although he reported raising less than $100,000 in campaign contributions, Ross did get the endorsement of the Mississippi Tea Party, which is still feeling its oats after giving a serious scare to veteran Republican Thad Cochran, who had served 36 years in the Senate. The Tea Party remains more than a little irate over that defeat and, although Ross got the endorsement, at least three other Republicans in the current race are courting Tea Party Republicans.
Starner Jones, a medical doctor who insists on arriving at campaign events costumed in his long white physician’s smock, is also known for having published what he called a “Christian” novel a couple of years ago, with very much earthy language and which many consider “pornographic.” No, we’ll not try to sort THAT out here. Jones has raised $228,000 for this race. He is said to have been campaigning mostly in DeSoto County, but there are a lot of votes there. Don’t count him out.
Ed Holliday, a personable and articulate Tupelo dentist, is courting Tea Partiers and will get substantial votes in Lee County, where he is well liked.
Twenty-nine-year-old Boyce Adams, Jr. of Columbus is appealing to Tea Party partisans. Adams served briefly as an intern and low level bureaucrat in Washington and came home to work for his father’s highly successful company that sells computer software to banks around the county. He is said to have some support from Governor Phil Bryant, a Tea Party favorite, who, it is said, had to be bound and trussed by GOP regulars to make him give tepid support to Cochran last year. Adams, Jr. has raised a lot of money — nearly a quarter of million dollars — and may run strong.
Mainline Republicans are the presumed front runners
Four mainline Republican candidates have spent substantial campaign money and are presumed by many to be the front runners:
Northern District Mississippi Transportation Commissioner Mike Tagert won his current office by carrying a district that is very similar to the outlines of the First Congressional District. An ex-Marine and effective campaigner, he has had some support from former Governor Haley Barbour’s organization and has enjoyed a $247,000 campaign chest. Most consider Tagert the best known candidate in the district and the front runner.
Businessman Sam Adcock of Columbus, until recently an aero-space executive, served ten years as an aid to Trent Lott. An effective speaker who evokes the “Marlboro man” persona that reminds one a little, in that respect, of the late Governor Kirk Fordice. Like Fordice, Adcock allegedly carries a handgun, which is featured in his television advertisement. He could run well. He is very focused, has spent a lot of money and picked up Trent Lott’s personal endorsement a few days ago. Adcock is “well wired” in Washington and should be able to find his way around Capitol Hill.
Greg Pirkle, who is the managing partner of the Tupelo office of Phelps Dunbar, one of the largest law firms in the south, was not especially well known outside of Lee County before qualifying for this election, but he has received strong support from Tupelo business and financial interests and has spent a great deal of money. He has run a strong television campaign.
Trent Kelly, the District Attorney for Lee and surrounding counties, will run well. He is a proven vote getter in several counties in the First District. Kelly is a colonel in the Mississippi National Guard and has served two active duty tours in the Middle Eastern wars of the last 12 years. He has the support of the late Congressman Nunnelee’s family and political organization, and although he is not among the best financed candidates, is expected to run strong.
The final complement of the Republican field
Candidates with smaller purses and less political experience include Itawamba County Prosecuting Attorney Chip Mills. Mills does come from a family well known in Mississippi Republican Party politics. He is the son of Federal Judge Mike Mills and, at a couple of appearances has struck us as the most effective public speaker in the field. A country lawyer with a long, lanky Abe Lincoln physique, Mills may run better than many expect.
Quentin Whitwell, a former Jackson city councilman and now an Oxford attorney, seems to be a mainstream Republican, is a former Ole Miss student body president. He’ll get some votes.
Daniel Sparks, a lawyer from Belmont who has raised and spent little money, is not expected to be at the top of the field.
Nancy Collins, a nurse and one of the founders of Sanctuary Hospice House, is a state senator from Tupelo. Although she has not raised much money, she is charming, a good speaker and clearly well like by the people of Lee County, the second most populous county in the First District. Don’t count here out.
The lone Democrat contender
Walter Zinn, a black lawyer from Pontotoc, is the only Democrat in the non-partisan contest. He served formerly on the staff of Republican Senator Roger Wicker, and could be characterized as a moderate Democrat. He is a good speaker and may be the most knowledgeable of all the candidates on the greatest variety of issues. He has spent nearly no money and is not given even a slim chance by most of making the run-off. However, imagine what might be if he has quietly courted the people of color and a few other admitted Democrats in the district. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Zinn may not be at the bottom of the vote tally.
Thirteen candidates. It’s very possible that those who make the run-off may do so with 12 or 15% of the votes cast today. We know of no experienced political observers willing to make a significant wager on this election (if gambling on elections were legal, that is).