Republicans see vulnerable Dem as litmus test for their 2010 strategy

If there’s any incumbent who might be sunk by the “D” next to his name, it’s Rep. Travis Childers (D-Miss.).

Even Republicans admit the popular new congressman has stayed on track through his first year and a half in a tough GOP-leaning district, so the party is counting on nationalizing the race as its key to victory in 2010.

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And perhaps nowhere else will the strategy of tying incumbents to Democratic leaders like Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama be more front-and-center.

In other words, a year and a half after Childers’s special-election win symbolized Democrats’ continued momentum leading up to the 2008 campaign, his fate going forward could symbolize their decline.

“There’s no question Mr. Childers is a nice man, and he’s served very effectively at county level for about the same time as  I’ve been in Legislature,” said his likely opponent, state Sen. Alan Nunnelee (R). “But legislative politics is a team sport.

“I think that people of North Mississippi understand the implications of his vote for Nancy Pelosi,” Nunnelee added.

Others put it more bluntly.

“We’re going to nationalize the hell out of it,” said a local GOP operative.

Republicans admit, with the exception of his vote for President Obama’s stimulus package and a few other pieces of legislation, Childers has had a solid 17 months in office since winning a special election for Sen. Roger Wicker’s (R-Miss.) former House seat last year.

Childers has always been popular, and his style was a perfect contrast to a bloody, polarizing GOP primary between Southaven Mayor Greg Davis and former Tupelo Mayor Glenn McCullough (Davis won). Since then, Childers has worked to solidify that reputation.

But now, Republicans say, conservative activists are mobilized, and the party is unlikely to face the kind of regionally divisive primary that sank their chances in 2008.

The party feels stronger about its chances with Nunnelee running, and he brings plenty of means to the race as chairman of the state Senate Appropriations Committee. He raised a strong $220,000 in the third quarter.

But even Republicans agree, next to Childers, Nunnelee isn’t the most compelling candidate. And that may make it even more important that the race become less about Childers and Nunnelee, and more about Pelosi and Obama.

“Nunnelee’s not going to win the race on his boyish good looks and charm,” said another Mississippi GOP operative. “I don’t necessarily think he can win unless he nationalizes it and convinces people they’ve got to oust this guy-next-door candidate who is very likable.”

Nunnelee will be put to the test with his first tough campaign in a long time, while Childers has the distinction of having won his Southern conservative seat even before Obama was on the ballot.

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A few other Southern Democrats went on to win seats in November thanks to rising black turnout (Childers’s district is 27 percent black). Dealing with a dropoff in those voters in 2010 is a problem confronting many of those candidates.

The first operative said Childers has “certainly been smart,” but that his vote for the stimulus bill and some uncertainty over his position in the healthcare debate could be used against him. And the tea party movement, which is huge in the area, will know the difference, the operative said.

“The tea party movement is alive and well in Mississippi, and they are ‘kill ’em all’ types” when it comes to incumbents, the operative said. “They will absolutely get behind Nunnelee over Childers.”

Childers and Nunnelee have already exchanged some blows over the stimulus package, with Nunnelee hitting Childers for his vote and Childers pointing out that Nunnelee has accepted stimulus funds.

Childers’s campaign said Republicans are grasping at straws by trying to nationalize the race.

“They haven’t really hit him on his votes or mistakes or the sort of things that ever lay a glove on an incumbent,” Childers adviser John Rowley said. “From the standpoint of how you make the case that Travis Childers isn’t the man for the job, I think they’re coming up goose eggs.”

Childers defeated Davis, 54-46, to win the seat in May 2008. He went on to defeat him again in November, 54-44.

Davis, who presides over a Memphis suburb near the Tennessee border, ceded plenty of support in the Tupelo area to Childers after the messy GOP primary. Nunnelee represents the Tupelo area, so he will be working with a base similar to that of Childers, who was chancery clerk in a small county north of Tupelo.

Other potential GOP challengers mentioned include Fox News commentator Angela McGlowan and former Eupora Mayor Henry Ross.

The district voted 62 percent for Republicans in both of the last two presidential elections and remains one of the top 10 most conservative districts held by a Democrat. But while Republicans have dominated federal politics, most local politicians remain Democrats.