Flashbacks to last year's brutal Senate primary in Mississippi have The Magnolia State operatives fretting a special election to replace the late Rep. Alan Nunnelee.
Nunnelee, 56, died on Feb. 6 after a short battle with brain cancer. Republicans will almost certainly retain his seat in a yet-to-be scheduled special election, but multiple Mississippi GOP operatives expressed concern the race could become a proxy battle between state Sen. Chris McDaniel's tea party supporters and mainstream Republicans who supported Sen. Thad Cochran's re-election in 2014 .
Fresh from launching the United Conservatives Fund super PAC last month, McDaniel said his group could support a candidate in the 1st District special election.
"The United Conservatives Fund has been contacted by many regarding several prospective candidates to run for the District 1 Congressional seat previously held by Congressman Alan Nunnelee," McDaniel said in a statement to CQ Roll Call. "Our UCF team is currently discussing scenarios and who we might support in the election, if anyone."
Local operatives were hesitant to speak on the record a day after hundreds packed a church in Tupelo, Miss., for Nunnelee's funeral . But a handful of state Republicans privately expressed concern to CQ Roll Call about McDaniel's involvement in the race.
"We all remember what we went through last year," said one Mississippi Republican operative who lives in the 1st District. We "are not anxious to repeat that process again."
Meanwhile, prospective candidates to succeed the three-term congressman have started to surface.
Republicans named the following politicians as potential candidates: Mississippi Transportation Commissioner Mike Tagert, who is gearing up for re-election to his current gig, and former Tupelo Mayor Glenn McCullough, who lost the GOP primary in a 1st District special election in 2008.
Both Republicans are well-known politicians in the 1st District. They can ramp up a team and the necessary money for a quick sprint to the special election. But neither would clear a GOP field, and a crowded Republican primary will likely materialize as a result.
Other potential Republican candidates include:
- State Sen. Gray Tollison from Oxford.
- Tollison's wife, Amanda Tollison, an attorney who served as chief counsel to former Gov. Haley Barbour.
- James Maxwell, a judge from Oxford, who serves on the Mississippi Court of Appeals.
- Quentin Whitwell, a former Jackson City councilmember who moved back to Oxford in the past year.
- State Rep. Brad Mayo from Oxford.
- Alcorn County District Attorney Trent Kelly.
- State Treasurer Lynn Fitch.
- Boyce Adams, who lost a bid for the Mississippi Public Service Commission in 2011 to Democrat Brandon Presley, a relative of singer Elvis Presley.
- Merle Flowers, a former state senator who retired in 2012.
On paper, none of these candidates fit the tea party firebrand mold espoused by McDaniel's faction of his party.
Instead, GOP operatives said the tea party is likely to look for a candidate from DeSoto County — a conservative stronghold in the northwest corner of the state where McDaniel did well in the 2014 Senate runoff .
State Republican strategists say electoral success in the district hinges on appealing to both the tea party conservatives in DeSoto County and the voters in rural Lee County, which encompasses Tupelo.
But it's also unclear whether McDaniel and his supporters will have time to find a candidate who could mount a credible run.
Gov. Phil Bryant, a Republican, has fewer than 60 days to call the special election to replace Nunnelee, according to state law. The election can take place no fewer than 60 days from Bryant's call.
Mississippi GOP operatives speculate the election could take place Aug. 4, which would coincide with the primaries for the regularly scheduled 2015 elections. An almost-certain runoff would take place three weeks later.
The Magnolia State's special election rules stipulate that all candidates who qualify run on the same ballot, regardless of party. A candidate must take more than 50 percent of the vote to win outright, or the race continues to a runoff with the two highest vote recipients.
Even with a nonpartisan ballot, it's unlikely a Democrat would pick up the seat in a primary or runoff. GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney carried the district by a 25-point margin in 2012, making it challenging terrain for a Democrat. But operatives speculate former Rep. Travis W. Childers or Presley could run anyway.
Childers captured the seat in a 2008 special election to replace now-Sen. Roger Wicker, defeating a weak Republican opponent. He won re-election in 2008, but lost the seat to Nunnelee in the 2010 GOP wave.
Related Stories: Why Special Elections Really Matter Rep. Alan Nunnelee Dies at Age 56 Thad Cochran Runs on Incumbency, Appropriations in GOP Primary Roger Wicker Looks for Fast Start at NRSC The 114th: CQ Roll Call's Guide to the New Congress Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.