Mississippi men take divergent paths

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Two former Mississippi Democratic congressmen are eyeing returns to Congress, but they’re taking divergent paths to exploit divisions within the GOP to mount comebacks. 

Democrat Travis Childers jumped into the Senate race on Friday, looking to take advantage of a contentious Republican primary election between Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) and state Sen. Chris McDaniel. Meanwhile, former Rep. Gene Taylor has switched parties to run as a Republican for his old seat against GOP Rep. Steven Palazzo, who beat him in 2010. 

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But if Childers and Mississippi Democrats are hoping to reverse the state’s sharp right turn, Taylor’s party switch is a signal of just how tough that will be.

“There’s been an erosion during the Reagan years, a further erosion during the Clinton years, and recently voter registration had actually swung to a majority calling themselves Republicans,” Taylor told The Hill when asked why he decided to run as a Republican in his old district.

Taylor previously said it was “impossible to win in this district as a Democrat.” Before he lost in 2010, he even tried to salvage his seat by promising he had voted for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), not President Obama, in the 2008 presidential race.

Mississippi Democrats are aiming to prove their onetime ally wrong. The state party is pouring resources into Project 1876, an effort to train activists in all of the state’s 1,876 precincts to make Mississippi a swing state by 2016, that they believe will bear fruit for the conservative Childers in November. 

Mississippi Democratic Party Chairman Rickey Cole said that effort, coupled with the voter file and resources provided by the Democratic National Committee’s Project Ivy data operation, would help develop the ground game a Democrat would need to win in the state.

“We’re not going to have an enthusiasm gap here. People are enthusiastic about the first chance we’ve had at winning a senate election since 1982,” Cole said. 

Childers is facing another Democrat in the primary, but he’s far and away the favorite, and recruiting him into the race was a coup for the national party. Democrats see his vote against ObamaCare during his time in the House as an important selling point in an election year when the law is taking center stage. They also believe the centrist has the right profile for the state: a pro-gun, anti-abortion economic populist who’s been out of Washington long enough to harness the frustration with it.

“He’s still seen as kind of a local guy. That’s how he ran his campaign there, and I think that’s how he’ll run this one,” said Joel Coon, who managed Childers’s 2008 upset House special election. 

Republicans plan to hammer Childers for his vote for Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-

Calif.) as Speaker and tie him to the national Democratic Party and President Obama, both toxic in the state. 

Indeed, the Democrats’ efforts to boost turnout can only go so far. Like in Senate upsets in Missouri and Indiana in 2012, Democrats are relying on Republican missteps to win. 

Democrats see Childers as far more competitive against McDaniel, believing his history of off-color remarks makes him likely to make an explosive comment similar to ones that collapsed winnable races last cycle. 

McDaniel made headlines when previous statements calling waterboarding “fairly humane” and wondering why Hollywood doesn’t cast Muslims as villains resurfaced. And Democrats and Republicans alike think he’s prone to another race-changing gaffe.

Democrats also see many of the attacks Cochran supporters have already used against McDaniel as potent for Childers, particularly comments expressing reservations over emergency relief funding after Hurricane Katrina.

Even Republicans admit Democrats would have a better shot at taking down McDaniel. Brad Dayspring, communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said in an email the race shows “why incumbent retention matters in the larger goal of building a majority.”

“Democrats do not eat their own. [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid [D-Nev.] probably sent the Senate Conservatives Fund a fruit basket for recruiting Travis Childers; regardless Thad Cochran is going to win because he is far and away the candidate who best represents the people of Mississippi and always puts his state first,” he said.

Despite Dayspring’s confidence, however, Cochran is considered the most vulnerable GOP senator to a primary challenge this cycle. McDaniel has a strong base of support among Tea Party activists in Mississippi, a proven fundraising ability and the backing of nearly every national conservative group. The Club for Growth has already been hitting Cochran with ads on his votes to raise the debt limit and for the financial bailout.

Democrats argue they still see hope for Childers against a hobbled Cochran, who they expect to take a heavy beating in the primary.

“It’s definitely a tougher road against Cochran, but it’s not impossible, especially with Cochran having the most serious challenge he’s ever had other than 1982,” Coon said.

That fight against the incumbent would likely be much tougher. Cochran’s better known, well-liked and led Childers by 17 points in the last statewide survey. 

While Democrats are enthusiastic about Childers’s chances, they’ve all but disowned Taylor since he switched parties. Cole described him as a “man without a country,” and said he’ll likely have trouble raising money, something Taylor struggled with even when running as a Democrat. But in the Gulf Coast, southeast Mississippi district that gave Mitt Romney 68 percent of the vote in the 2012 presidential race, running as a Republican is likely his only recourse. 

The onetime Democrat, who was frequently one of the most conservative in his caucus, cited ObamaCare as the primary reason he was defeated in 2010, charging that “the Democratic leadership threw every conservative Democrat under the bus” with the way the passage of the law was handled.

And he pointed to not just his opposition to the healthcare reform law but his support of repeal as evidence he can win the backing of Republicans.

Taylor believes emphasizing the work he did for the district while in office, particularly in bringing back Hurricane Katrina aid money to the area, will help him win the primary against his former foe, who’s had some missteps since he won. 

He pointed to Palazzo’s vote for the Biggert-Waters Act, which was meant to make the National Flood Insurance Program solvent but resulted in skyrocketing insurance rate increases upon implementation, as a vote counter to the needs of the people in his district. Palazzo has since been active in the effort to pass a flood insurance rate fix in the House.

And he charged Palazzo’s vote for sequestration, which Taylor said hurts military families in the district, was further evidence Palazzo’s not as committed as him to the district.

Palazzo, for his part, said he wasn’t worried about the challenge.

“It took 25 years for my former Democrat opponent to make it into a Republican primary, and I welcome him to it,” he said in a statement.

But even with the defection of one of their own and his pessimism on the state of their party, Mississippi Democrats are choosing to focus on the positive and seize the chance they’ve been given. 

“This is a big deal for us,” Cole said. “For the first time in my lifetime, we have a unified Democratic Party that is hungry for a victory.”