When former Fox News political commentator Angela McGlowan entered Mississippi's 1st district GOP primary in February, there was some speculation that she might harness the anti-establishment sentiment and give highly touted state Sen. Alan Nunnelee (R) a run for his money.
Four months later, McGlowan seems to have flamed out while former Eupora Mayor Henry Ross, who filed for the race in early January, has suddenly found himself with late momentum.
With just days to go before Tuesday's primary, Ross is working to force Nunnelee into a June 22 runoff.
This week, Nunnelee played down the significance of possibly being forced into a runoff by stressing how hard it is to win 50 percent plus one vote in a three-candidate contest.
"My goal is to lead the ticket" on Tuesday, he said. "The mathematics of a three-way primary make it very hard to win it outright."
But the last thing Nunnelee needs is to let Ross prove he's a serious challenger and give him three more weeks to build momentum. Meanwhile, a runoff would also mean three more weeks in which Nunnelee would have to spend money rather than raise it to prepare for the general election against Rep. Travis Childers (D), who showed more than $700,000 in his campaign account as of May 12.
After spending $489,000 on his campaign since last July, Nunnelee had $154,000 in his campaign account two weeks ago. Ross had $62,000 in the bank on May 12, while McGlowan had less than $1,500.
This cycle, the GOP primary has yet to see the level of animosity that came to define the 2008 race. That has been a good thing for the GOP officials who view the conservative district as a top takeover target this year. In 2008, Childers won a stunning special election victory over Southaven Mayor Greg Davis (R), in part because wounds never healed after a divisive GOP primary. Davis was also hurt by the fact that he hailed from the Memphis suburbs in the northern part of the district — an area that has a distinctly different flavor and electorate than the rest of the mostly rural seat. One of the factors fueling excitement for Nunnelee this cycle is that he hails from Tupelo, which is close to the heart of the Congressman's geographic base.
Ross launched his first television ad in the district on Friday, and he used the bio piece to discuss his service as a Navy officer in the JAG Corps and in the Justice Department during the George W. Bush administration. In the ad, he also discusses the threat of "Washington liberals and judges" and his desire for a constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriage.
Ross believes a large part of his recent momentum is born from the tea party movement in Northern Mississippi.
"I think the people who are in the tea parties are very interested in me and the message I have," he said.
Ross is hesitant to attack Nunnelee by name, but he was clearly referring to the state Senator, who has been in office since 1995, when he criticized "career politicians."
Some of Ross' momentum is coming from a backlash this cycle against anyone connected to the party establishment.
Nunnelee, who reached the top level of the National Republican Congressional Committee's "Young Guns" program earlier this month, has long been the pick of state and national party leaders.
His campaign has earned donations from the likes of NRCC Chairman Pete Sessions (Texas), House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (Va.) and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (even though Barbour's brother, Jeppie, is managing Ross' campaign).
If Nunnelee is forced to a runoff and if he were to lose, it would be a second embarrassment for the NRCC after fellow Young Gun Vaughn Ward was defeated in the Tuesday primary in Idaho.
Ross said he believes this is the right cycle to be the outsider.
"Other nonestablishment candidates have gotten support this cycle, and I believe we're getting that same kind of support here in Mississippi," he said.
For his part, Nunnelee isn't running from his ties to the national party. Although he stayed home to campaign this week instead of attending an NRCC-sponsored Young Guns event on Capitol Hill, he said Tuesday that he welcomed the NRCC's recognition.
"There will be plenty of time to come to D.C. and meet all the appropriate people once we have the nomination," Nunnelee said.
While her cash flow has dwindled and her campaign never fully recovered from some early bad press over comments that she made on the issue of gun control, McGlowan said this week that she remains confident she can finish strong. She bases her faith on a few local tea party polls and blames her fundraising problems on efforts by "the establishment" to block her.
Early in the campaign, McGlowan said in a radio interview that she would endorse Ross if the contest went to a runoff between the former Eupora mayor and Nunnelee, but McGlowan declined to say whether she continues to feel that way.
"I don't intend to lose," McGlowan said.