Mississippi Special Candidates Hoping Third Time’s a Charm

Posted April 21, 2008 at 6:25pm

For the third time in six weeks, voters in Mississippi’s 1st district will head to the polls today, this time for the open special election to fill the vacant House seat of now-Sen. Roger Wicker (R).

But a crowded ballot and an expected low voter turnout that will be amplified by voter fatigue has several Magnolia State race watchers predicting that no candidate will secure 50 percent of the vote today. That would set up a special runoff on May 13 — which would make it four elections in the district in nine weeks.

Today’s battle is expected to come down to Southhaven Mayor Greg Davis, who earlier this month won the Republican nomination for the general election, and Prentiss County Chancery Clerk Travis Childers, the Democratic nominee for the November race.

In what was once a safely Republican district under Wicker, neither Davis nor Childers appears to be the clear-cut favorite in the special today.

In addition to the uncertainty that comes with any special election, complicating matters in this race is the fact that all the candidates will appear on the ballot without their party identifications. Additionally, Davis and Childers will appear on the same ballot today as former Tupelo Mayor Glenn McCullough (R) and state Rep. Steve Holland (D) — the men each beat in their respective primaries — because the special election ballots were prepared before McCullough and Holland dropped their bids following their primary losses. Green Party candidate John Wages and Independent Wally Pang are also on the ballot today.

Earlier this month the Republican runoff was a much tighter and decidedly more negative affair than the Democratic race, and even some Republicans are predicting that McCullough’s name on the special ballot will likely draw more supporters away from Davis than Holland’s name will sap support for Childers.

Meanwhile, Democratic voters outperformed Republican voters in the two primary elections so far this cycle. But Republicans say they are confident that when it comes down to picking between a Democrat or a Republican, the 1st district — which went for President Bush by a 25-point margin in 2004 — will go with the GOP candidate.

To ensure that outcome, the National Republican Congressional Committee spent more than $292,000 in independent expenditures on the 1st district race so far this year, with $150,000 of that coming from an ad placement purchase last Wednesday.

“They are called ‘special elections’ for a reason, and that is because today’s electorate is not representative of what it will be in November,” NRCC spokesman Ken Spain said on Monday. “That is why we are taking the necessary measures to inform voters of the clear choice they will have in this election.”

By comparison, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has dropped $141,000 on the race. But a DCCC spokeswoman said that regardless of the outcome in the Mississippi special, Democrats are happy that the NRCC is forced to spend money on the race.

“Mississippi’s 1st Congressional district is ruby red, and the fact that the cash-strapped national Republicans are having to significantly invest their scarce resources on this seat is a problem for them now and in November,” DCCC spokeswoman Kyra Jennings said.

The special election isn’t necessarily do-or-die for Childers, but it will be significantly harder for the Democrat to take this seat in November — when his name will appear on the ballot under that of the Democratic presidential nominee — if he doesn’t take it in the special and then make use of the power of incumbency over the next six months.

Childers, a conservative Democrat who has been endorsed by the Blue Dog Coalition, has tried to turn the special campaign into a regional battle rather than a party fight. Childers hails from Booneville, which is just 30 miles outside of Tupelo. Tupelo, of course, is Wicker’s hometown as well as McCullough’s base. Davis, on the other hand, hails from DeSoto County, the district’s most populous Republican county and the place where he has a proven and effective get-out-the-vote program. About half his votes in the Republican primary came from DeSoto.

One campaign staffer said Monday that the many elections in the 1st district — primary, primary runoff, special and now a potential special runoff — have started to blur together at this point and the campaign pace is starting to feel like something out of the movie “Groundhog Day” for voters and staff alike.

“The biggest thing both campaigns have had to worry about is voter fatigue,” the staffer said. “On one hand people are tired but, on the other hand, they’ve gone out twice already and they’ve shown that they are committed to doing this.”