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Past and Precedent: What Makes This Mississippi Special Election Interesting

You might think the best way to understand Mississippi's upcoming 1st District special election  to fill the late Rep. Alan Nunnelee's seat is to examine the 2008 special election in the same district. After all, that previous special election to fill the seat left open by Roger Wicker's appointment to the Senate happened less than seven years ago.  

If you think that, you are wrong. The regularly scheduled 2008 primary, which took place on March 11 and was followed by an April 1 runoff, took place before the April 22 special election and May 13 special election runoff. That sequencing is crucial because it made the 2008 special election less important than you might imagine.  

Unlike special elections, regularly scheduled primaries in Mississippi are partisan events. Each party picks its nominee in a primary (and a runoff, if necessary), and the nominees meet in November.  

The regularly scheduled 2008 GOP primary was a three-person contest that produced a runoff between Southaven Mayor Greg Davis and former Tupelo Mayor Glenn McCullough Jr., who finished first in the initial balloting.  

Davis’ strength was in Mississippi’s fast-growing Memphis suburbs, where Southaven is located. Voters in DeSoto County work and shop in Memphis, watch Memphis television and generally identify with the city. They don’t really think of themselves as being from Mississippi, and they have very different memories, allegiances and views than the voters who live in the rest of  northern Mississippi.  

Republican voters in DeSoto County, the most populous county in the 1st District, tend to hold the anti-government, libertarian views of the tea party, while voters throughout the rest of the district have always relied on federal dollars flowing into the state and have never embraced the angry rhetoric and confrontational style of the tea party and libertarian wings of the GOP.  

In the 2008 primary, Davis carried only five of the district’s 22 counties, all in the northwest corner of the district. But he drew 81 percent in DeSoto (8,281 votes), which accounted for almost half of his entire district-wide vote.  

Outside of the Memphis area, McCullough crushed Davis. But the former Tupelo mayor could not overcome Davis’s huge margin in the Memphis suburbs, and Davis won the nomination, 50.8 percent to 49.2 percent.  

On the Democratic side, Prentiss County Chancery Clerk Travis Childers and state Rep. Steve Holland finished first and second in the primary, respectively. Childers won the runoff, setting up a Davis vs. Childers general election in November.  

Because Davis and Childers had already won places on the ballot for the fall’s general election, the special election became almost meaningless. The winner of the special would serve only a few months. Given that, the other special election candidates dropped their bids, though their names remained on the ballot.  

What was expected to be a classic “jungle primary” turned into a two-way race of Davis vs. Childers (though without partisan affiliation, since it was a special election). When the votes were counted, the Democrat, Childers, had fallen just short of the 50 percent mark, forcing him into a May 13 runoff, which he won.  

This year’s special election should be a true jungle primary, with multiple candidates and no party designation. That presents potential problems for the GOP, which certainly should hold the seat given the district’s partisan bent and President Barack Obama’s unpopularity in the district.  

The Republican problem is the same one they had in 2008: They are deeply divided. GOP voters in the Memphis area have very different views of government and of the kind of political leaders they want than do voters in the rest of the district.  

In the May 2008 runoff between Davis and Childers to fill the rest of Wicker’s House term, the Republican drew almost 75 percent of the vote in DeSoto County but lost Lee County (Tupelo), Lowndes County (Columbus) and Lafayette County (Oxford) — three crucial areas in the central and southern parts of the district.  

While there is no DeSoto County candidate in the 2015 special election yet, it’s hard to believe someone won’t enter the race given the region’s political strength and ideological zeal, as well as the dynamic of a nonpartisan special election.  

Republicans may entertain the notion they can find someone who can excite voters in both Tupelo and the Memphis suburbs, but that’s unlikely. Though they are both generally conservative and Republican, the two areas are light years apart culturally and economically.  

The surest way for Republicans to retain the seat is to rally around someone from the southern or central part of the district. That will keep populist conservatives voting Republican without sacrificing the support of DeSoto County conservatives, who surely would see any Republican as preferable to any Democrat.  

In the jungle primary, however, all candidates run together and without party identification. That means two Republicans (presumably a tea party type and a pragmatic conservative) could meet in the runoff, or, possibly, a tea party-backed Republican from the Memphis suburbs and a populist moderate Democrat, such as Childers.  

The first scenario would guarantee Republicans hold the seat but could well add another tea party conservative to the House to make things difficult for Speaker John A. Boehner. The second scenario would force Republican strategists to hope that Obama is so unpopular that GOP voters in the central and southern parts of the 1st District can’t bring themselves to vote for a Democrat in the special election.  

Related: Why Special Elections Really Matter Chris McDaniel Looks to Play in Mississippi Special Election Roll Call Results Map: Results and District Profiles for Every Seat Be the first to know about Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report/Roll Call race rating changes with our new Roll Call politics app!