One of the most conservative Democrats in House history is mounting a comeback bid in Mississippi — and his unconventional campaign could potentially boost the re-election hopes of Sen. Thad Cochran, one of this cycle's most vulnerable Republicans.
Former Democratic Rep. Gene Taylor switched parties in late February to launch a primary challenge in the coastal 4th District against GOP Rep. Steven M. Palazzo, the Republican who ended Taylor's career four years ago.
Mississippi Republicans cast doubt on Taylor’s chances in the June 3 primary. But they think a competitive House primary could increase Republican turnout in the district, which happens to be a stronghold for Cochran, a six-term senator facing a tough primary from state Sen. Chris McDaniel.
Taylor did not return multiple requests for comment on this story, but the former congressman wrote an op-ed that ran in the Sun Herald over the weekend explaining his logic for running. Taylor said he began mulling a bid when “friends, supporters and even strangers” encouraged him to run again.
"When I started seriously looking at another run for office, I only considered running as a Republican,” Taylor wrote in the op-ed. "My conservative voting record and my conservative views have been constant throughout my career, and since the national Democrats moved far to the left with their big government, slow-growth agenda, my views and vision fit naturally in the Republican Party."
The 4th District was devastated when Hurricane Katrina blew through the area in 2005, and Cochran is credited with securing federal aid to rebuild the storm-crippled coast. McDaniel is facing criticism for saying voting for Katrina aid "would not be an easy vote to cast ."
"What I tend to think is that the primary is actually going to drive a very large turnout on the Gulf Coast," said Hayes Dent, a Mississippi Republican lobbyist. "And when you layer that over McDaniel's comments that came out … regarding Katrina aid, I think it’s going to be a huge thing for Sen. Cochran quite frankly."
While Taylor’s bid could end up boosting Cochran, Palazzo and his fellow members of the Mississippi delegation also are working to help Cochran against McDaniel. Palazzo donated $4,500 to Cochran’s campaign, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission.
The House contest is a rematch, sort of, since Palazzo crushed Taylor's bid for an 11th term in 2010, when Republicans swept the south and picked up dozens of House seats across the country.
A member of the now-depleted Blue Dog Caucus, Taylor often bucked the Democratic Party, becoming one of just a handful opposing the 2009 stimulus package and the 2010 Affordable Care Act. Still, Republicans successfully tied Taylor to Democratic leadership, including then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California.
Four years after losing re-election, Republicans say Taylor's vote backing Pelosi as speaker will haunt his comeback bid — and potentially ignite the same GOP base who voted against him in 2010 to turn out for the primary.
In his op-ed, Taylor knocked Palazzo for having "voted with Nancy Pelosi" on cutting the defense budget, and boasted, "When President Obama and Nancy Pelosi brought us Obamacare, I voted against it and later voted to repeal it. When the Washington Insiders wanted to bail out Wall Street, I voted against it." Taylor also complained that Palazzo opposed aid for Superstorm Sandy, comparing that storm to Katrina and saying the vote was "the worst thing he did as a representative."
Republicans in the district attempted to kick Taylor off the ballot, saying they didn't believe he had truly changed parties, according to The Associated Press , but the state party ultimately voted to allow his name to remain.
"He is a very good politician. He is very good on the stump and in person, and there’s no doubt he’s going to put all the candidates running against him ... on their toes," one Mississippi Republican operative said of Taylor. "But he’s running in a GOP primary against everyone who worked so hard to beat him before."
Taylor's late start in the race only makes his bid more difficult.
He filed the necessary paperwork to begin raising money for the race on March 7, leaving him with a small war chest just six weeks out from the primary.
As of March 31, Taylor reported raising $83,000 and had $49,000 in cash on hand. The party switch is also unlikely to earn him any outside group support.
Palazzo raised $175,000 in the first quarter, and ended March with $403,000 in the bank. It's a war chest that will go far in this district, where television airtime comes cheap to candidates. (See our House fundraising chart here .)
Despite Palazzo’s advantage, Republicans in the state say Taylor's familiarity with voters after his long congressional tenure makes him a formidable candidate.
And with three other Republicans running in the primary, it's possible that no candidate garners the 50 percent needed for Palazzo to avoid being forced into a June 24 runoff.
Federal contractor Tom Carter and tea party activists Tavish Kelly and Ron Vincent also are running. Kelly and Vincent have almost no money to spend on the primary. But Carter loaned his campaign $200,000, and he reported having nearly all of that in the bank as of March 31.
“Taylor’s made public comments in the past that were not very kind to the Republican Party, so it’s an uphill battle,” said Mississippi Republican operative Henry Barbour. “But you have to take him seriously.”
Democratic activist Matt Moore and artist Trish Causey are running as Democrats in the June 3 primary. Neither, however, have filed fundraising reports with the FEC. GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney won Mississippi's 4th District with 68 percent of the vote in 2012. It is rated a Safe Republican contest by Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call.