Mississippi state Sen. Chris McDaniel, the tea party firebrand who nearly ousted a Republican senator in a primary last year, has attempted to shape the state's upcoming 1st District special election.
But more than a week since Gov. Phil Bryant set the date to replace the late Rep. Alan Nunnelee, the candidates who fit McDaniel's tea party mold have either passed on a bid or dropped out of the contest. It leaves the rabble-rouser and fellow anti-establishment conservatives without a candidate to support in the two-month sprint to the election.
(McDaniel's home district is far outside the 1st District boundaries.)
With such a short lead-up to the May 12 contest, candidates must quickly ramp up fundraising and ground-game operations to find success among the crowded field. As the days tick by, the window for candidates to make a successful bid shrinks.
Six GOP candidates already are running: First Circuit Court District Attorney Trent Kelly, state Sen. Nancy Collins, former Jackson City Councilman Quentin Whitwell, Itawamba County Prosecutor Chip Mills, attorney Greg Pirkle and Columbus businessman Danny Bedwell. Software executive Boyce Adams will announce his campaign Thursday, and Transportation Commissioner Mike Tagert is likely to enter the race in the coming days, according to multiple Mississippi GOP operatives.
But none fit the anti-establishment profile.
And none of the contenders hail from DeSoto County, a fast-growing suburb of Memphis in the northwestern corner of the Magnolia State. McDaniel ran surprisingly strong in the region in his low-turnout GOP Senate primary against Sen. Thad Cochran which forced a runoff election.
"It is almost impossible for me to think that you’re not going to have a candidate there [in DeSoto County]," said Hayes Dent, a Republican lobbyist based in Jackson. "You’ve got a month, and goodness knows a well-known person from DeSoto County would probably make the runoff."
State Rep. Chris Brown, the first candidate to announce a bid for the seat, looked poised to receive McDaniel's support among the crowded field. But Brown unexpectedly dropped out of the contest on Feb. 27, citing the need to help with his family's business.
Mississippi GOP operatives say Starner Jones, a doctor who currently lives in Memphis, is mulling a move across state lines to run in the district. It's unclear whether Jones would take that leap, but GOP operatives say he'd be sure to see attacks about his residency if he does.
Two other candidates from DeSoto County — Hernando Mayor Chip Johnson and state Sen. David Parker — also passed on running.
GOP operatives count Adams, Kelly and Tagert among the top-tier of candidates.
Tagert, who was gearing up for his Transportation Commission re-election bid, has experience running district-wide — a plus among the crowded field.
Adams, who ran unsuccessfully for the Mississippi Public Service Commission in 2011, has a base in Columbus, located in the southeast pocket of the district. Adams also reportedly is going to spend some of his own personal wealth in the contest, which could give him a leg up with such a short time to fundraise for the race.
And Kelly's district attorney seat encompasses much of the rural areas in the northeast corner of the district, including Lee County, home to Tupelo. GOP operatives say Kelly, an Iraq War veteran, could be hurt by Collins, who also represents Tupelo.
No Democrats are currently in the race and the party would have a hard time competing for this district, which GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney carried by a 25-point margin in 2012.
Candidates have until March 27 to qualify for the ballot.
All of the candidates will run on the same ballot, regardless of party. The two top vote recipients advance to a June 2 runoff if no candidate garners more than 50 percent of the vote. With such a crowded field splintering the vote, a runoff is a near certainty.
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