In Mississippi, a new elephant in the room

BILOXI, Miss. — Former Rep. Gene Taylor (Miss.) lost four years ago to Republican Steven Palazzo with a “D” next to his name. In two weeks, he’s hoping an “R” can help him win a rematch. 

The party-switching former centrist Democrat is banking on his personal appeal to defeat Palazzo, a Republican who beat him in the 2010 wave election. And as he’s swarmed by admirers at a church fair, many sound willing to welcome the 20-year veteran back with open arms. 

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“I think we’re either dead even or ahead,” Taylor confidently told The Hill on Sunday.

Squinting under the hot Mississippi sun just off the coast in Biloxi, the former congressman couldn’t even speak for more than a few minutes before being interrupted by a steady stream of supporters stopping by to shake hands or snap a photo.

Though he’s still a long shot, Taylor believes his underfunded, underdog campaign could come out on top on June 3, or at least force Palazzo to a runoff in the five-candidate field. 

Taylor said supporters had indicated they’d received polling calls from affiliates of Palazzo and argued the fact that Palazzo hasn’t released any of those numbers must indicate they don’t hold good news for the incumbent.

He speculated that while Palazzo’s numbers “are steadily dropping, our numbers are steadily gaining” as his former constituents realize he’s an option on the ballot. And he said there’s no question he’d win the nomination if it goes to overtime. 

“The rule of thumb is the incumbent gets his best vote the first vote. I would much prefer to win outright on June 3, but if there’s a runoff, we’ll win it,” he said.

Taylor’s unlikely path to the nomination is based on the fact that voters know him well and, he asserts, like him better than Palazzo.

“I think after three years of Steven Palazzo, they’re going, ‘What the heck did we do?’ ” he said.

Indeed, supporters stopping by to say hello seemed to confirm Taylor’s hunch. Most chatted with him like old friends, asking about his boat, telling him about their latest family gossip or problems. 

Taylor has built his campaign on that kind of interaction, stopping at every church fair and parade he can find, “following the crowds,” as he told a reporter trying to nail him down on the trail.

Palazzo has not been absent from the campaign trail himself, but the second-term congressman doesn’t have the same decades-long relationships to draw on.

He does, however, have the fundamentals of the race working in his favor: He’s outraised Taylor by a nearly 6-to-1 ratio and has outspent him more than 10-to-1.

GOP primary voters aren’t typically known for voting Democratic, and Palazzo and his allies have highlighted Taylor’s vote for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) as Speaker in hopes of turning GOP voters off to him.

“It is my opponent’s lifelong Democrat record that is most concerning to South Mississippians,”  Palazzo said in an email. “He was in office over 21 years, and now he wants to return for more.  He voted with Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama’s liberal agenda nearly 80 percent of the time while he was up there. He voted for bailouts, higher taxes, and forgot about our beliefs and values.  South Mississippians sent him home in 2010 as a Democrat, and they just don’t believe his conversion to the GOP is anything more than political opportunism at its worst.”

But some local Republicans seemed ready to forgive the party switch. W.C. Fore, 73, stopped by to shake Taylor’s hand and said the switch “don’t bother me a bit.”

“I’m glad he switched. He just fits on that side more than he does the Democrat. I think he’s a conservative. I think he’s part of the country, part of the people,” Fore said.

Taylor’s campaign was passing out literature on Sunday that outlined his “conservative values,” and Taylor said he was reconsidering his vote for Pelosi.

“She was trying to help after Katrina. In her first two years, she didn’t go nearly as crazy as she did in her last two years as Speaker,” he said. “Of course I would’ve taken it back.”

His work to secure funding for Gulf Coast residents impacted by Hurricane Katrina, as well as his efforts to protect veterans and funding for military bases in the military-heavy district, have been his central selling points. 

And he said he’d be open to supporting an increase in the minimum wage, inspired by his early morning stops at gas stations for coffee on the campaign trail, where workers are struggling to get by.

“If we want people to value work … then work has to have value. And so, I would certainly be open to helping those people get a little bit more to get by,” he said.

That support could be a sticking point in the GOP primary. But on another potentially contentious issue, immigration reform, Taylor said he doesn’t believe reform is necessary.

He also said Palazzo’s vote against Hurricane Sandy aid was “unforgivable” and accused him of “literally stick[ing] his thumb in the eye of the people from New York and New Jersey,” after the nation had helped restore the Gulf Coast following Katrina.

And he slammed Palazzo for “voting with Pelosi to cut the defense budget,” a reference to the Budget Control Act of 2011 that created the automatic cuts to defense and discretionary spending known as sequestration. Taylor said he would have opposed that.

“I would’ve run to the floor and said, ‘The most important thing this nation does is defend the nation, so more than half the cuts should not come out of the Department of Defense,’ ” he said.

To reverse those cuts, though, Taylor didn’t offer any specific plans, only asserting the need to create coalitions in Congress. That’s something he said he had a proven record of doing, while Palazzo has stalled.

“It’s all done by coalitions. No one guy does anything. It’s also done with credibility. I don’t think this guy will ever have any credibility, based on his track record so far,” he said.

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