Looking at the numbers, Republicans should feel very confident about holding the seat of the late U.S. Rep. Alan Nunnelee. In the last two presidential elections Republicans John McCain and Mitch Romney both carried Mississippi’s First Congressional District by the same margin, 62-37 percent over President Obama. Since Jamie Whitten retired in 1995, Republicans Roger Wicker and Nunnelee have represented the First Congressional District except for the one term when Democrat Travis Childers held the seat before being defeated by Nunnelee. In the race won by Childers, the leading Republican candidates were then Southaven mayor Greg Davis, who was backed by former Sen. Trent Lott, and former Tupelo mayor Glenn McCullough, who was supported by Sen. Thad Cochran. Davis, as time would show, was a flawed candidate who later lost his re-election as mayor and was then convicted of state embezzlement charges.
Gov. Phil Bryant will call a special election to replace Nunnelee. All candidates, regardless of party affiliation, will run at the same time. That’s the potential rub for Republicans. If Democrats can find a strong candidate that could make the runoff while the Republican field is splintered, Democrats might have an outside shot to win the election. Although popular Northern District Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley has already announced he will not run, Attorney General Jim Hood would be a very formidable candidate if he has any interest in the race, and Childers, for obvious reasons, could also be a serious candidate despite losing four years ago to Nunnelee and recently to Sen. Cochran.
On the Republican side, the names of at least a dozen credible candidates have been tossed around. If even half or less of those who have been mentioned qualify for the special election, the GOP vote could possibly be widely split. The Republican making the runoff might have a low percentage of the total vote and still make the runoff against a strong Democrat. Democrats would very much like that scenario which would give them their best chance to win the special election.
The only real potential unifying candidate for Republicans would be Nunnelee’s widow, Tori. It is not uncommon at all in the U.S. House for widows of deceased members to win elections to succeed their husbands. Tori Nunnelee is very highly regarded and politically savvy in her own right. She would make an excellent candidate but unless something very drastic changes in the next few days and she makes a 180 degrees about face, Tori Nunnelee will not be candidate.
The last time Mississippi had a special election to replace a deceased member was when Larkin Smith tragically died in a 1989 plane crash during his first term. That seat in Mississippi’s old Fifth Congressional District had been in hands of Republican Trent Lott since he was elected in 1972. Smith won the seat when Lott was elected in 1988 to replace the retiring Sen. John Stennis.
In the 1989 special election, Lott all but forced Smith’s widow Shelia out of the race to succeed her husband. The Democrat candidates were Attorney General Mike Moore, who had just won re-election, and state Sen. Gene Taylor, who ran against Larkin Smith in 1988. The Republican candidate was Tommy Anderson, who had served as Lott’s chief of staff and as ambassador to Barbados. A number of leading Democrats in the state, including William Winter, urged Taylor not to run in order to provide a clear path for Moore, a popular AG at the time. Taylor surprised most everyone by winning the special election, and despite that congressional district being very Republican in national and most statewide elections, it took more than 20 years for Republicans to take the seat back when Taylor was defeated in 2010 by Steven Palazzo.
Republicans need to get their act together for the special election to replace Nunnelee to make sure the seat doesn’t fall into Democrat hands as it did when Childers was elected.