1st District race grabs attention of party leaders

January 12, 2010

Mississippi’s 1st District is likely to become the battleground for one of the nation’s most heated congressional races this year, a status that could have Democrat and Republican party leaders in Washington pumping a substantial amount of money and staff into their respective candidate’s campaigns.


Freshman Rep Travis Childers of Booneville, a self-described conservative Democrat, is defending his seat against a challenge by Republican state Sen. Alan Nunnelee of Tupelo.


Although either could face a primary challenger, the two are considered favorites to win their party nominations.


They also could face nontraditional party candidates in the general election. Hernando resident Les Green, a high school math teacher, said he is considering a run as an independent.


The qualifying deadline is March 1. The primary is June 1.


Nunnelee, 51, filed qualification papers Wednesday, the same day the National Republican Congressional Committee granted him “contender” status, meaning he has met or exceeded pre-established fundraising goals.


It also means the party is likely to play a heavy hand in the race, offering fundraising and staffing help.


The Republicans would need to win 40 seats to take back a majority in the House of Representatives. The GOP is honing in on any possible chance to chip away at the majority and is particularly interested in this Deep South seat that the party only recently lost to a Democrat.


“We view this race at the very top of the list,” NRCC spokesman Andy Sere said. “It’s definitely in the upper echelon, and Senator Nunnelee has proven to be one of our best candidates this cycle.”


Nunnelee said he expects a GOP primary.


Childers, 51, took office in the 1st District in May 2008 after winning a special election to replace Roger Wicker, R-Tupelo, now a U.S. senator. He defeated Republican Greg Davis in a runoff, taking almost 54 percent of the vote. He went on to win the general election.


Davis, mayor of Southaven, won the GOP nomination in a bitter battle against former Tupelo Mayor Glenn McCullough.


Asked whether he expected to have a competitive race, Childers said, “I hope so.”


“No one will outwork us in any campaign – period,” Childers said as he walked through the state Capitol on Thursday on his way to Democratic House Speaker Billy McCoy’s office.


McCoy, D-Rienzi, lives in the 1st District.


In Washington, Childers has shied away from supporting big-ticket Democratic legislation, such as the health-care reform proposal or the bank bailout, though he hasn’t completely bucked the majority party.


Childers supported the stimulus package and voted for Nancy Pelosi as House Speaker, both of which the Republican camp will use against him in its attempt to draw conservative voters.


“We believe he has made some mistakes,” Sere said.


Childers is one of 52 members of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrats Coalition. He said there’s space for difference of opinion within the party ranks.


“The Democratic Party is the big-tent party, and there’s plenty of room for a Southern conservative Democrat under that tent,” he said.


A former Democratic opponent, state Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, said he is 100 percent behind Childers. “You can write that in eight-foot tall letters,” he said.


The district tends to vote conservatively but looked beyond party labels in 2008.


That year, GOP presidential candidate Sen. John McCain of Arizona took 62 percent of the vote to then- Sen. Barack Obama’s 38 percent.


Before his election, Childers was chancery clerk in Prentiss County and ran a real estate company.


Nunnelee has been a member of the Mississippi Senate since 1995. As Appropriations Committee chairman, Nunnelee will have a leading role in shaping what promises to be a tough and lean state budget for fiscal 2011.


Congressional candidates file campaign earnings quarterly. At the last filing, covering July 1 to Sept. 30, Childers had three times as much money on hand, though they raised about the same amount in the quarter. Childers reported raising $275,000 to Nunnelee’s $220,000.


The candidates will file expenditure reports this month covering the last quarter of 2009. Nunnelee said he will report contributions from the Republican House leadership, including House minority leader John Boehner of Ohio and Republican Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia. But Nunnelee said he doesn’t think the outside party leaders will have overwhelming influence in the race.


“I think it will be a race that has nationwide interest, but I feel very strongly that this will be a race that will be decided in northern Mississippi and not in Washington,” he said.


Green, 41, who teaches algebra in the DeSoto County School District, said he is in the “exploratory phase” of the campaign. He describes himself as conservative and said he would be laying out his platforms at the time of an announcement.
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