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Crowded field for open Miss. House seat

Crowded field for open Miss. House seat
© Greg Nash

In the special election contest to replace the late Rep. Alan Nunnelee, Mississippi Republicans are hoping to avoid the nasty, divisive GOP primary that roiled the 2014 Senate race. 

But with such a large and diverse field that’s still growing, even plugged-in operatives have no clue how the race might play out in the Tupelo-based 1st District. 

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“For a congressional race, I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Mississippi Republican strategist Austin Barbour, nephew of former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour. “Maybe it’s happened before at some local race or mayoral race, but for a House seat, this is just a crazy number of people.”

So far, 12 Republicans have officially entered the race to replace Nunnelee, who died of cancer in February. In addition to the confirmed candidates, another half-dozen are rumored to be considering entering the race before the qualifying deadline on Friday.

Top candidates include Mike Tagert, the transportation commissioner for all of the 1st District counties, and Trent Kelly, a district attorney whose campaign is being managed by a former Nunnelee campaign manager and top aide. 

All candidates, regardless of party, will run on the same ballot in the solid GOP district in a jungle primary on May 12. A candidate would have to get 50 percent in to win outright, but the huge field of contenders almost assures that the race will be headed to a runoff between the top two vote-getters on June 2.

Republicans want to avoid a repeat of the nastiest and most divisive contest of 2014, in which incumbent Sen. Thad CochranWilliam (Thad) Thad CochranThe Hill's Morning Report — Kavanaugh ordeal thrusts FBI into new political jam GOP Senate candidate to African Americans: Stop begging for 'government scraps' Trump endorses Hyde-Smith in Mississippi Senate race MORE narrowly defeated state Sen. Chris McDaniel, a Tea Party favorite, in a primary marred by legal challenges, racial accusations, spousal spying and even a suicide. McDaniel famously refused to concede to Cochran and blamed crossover Democratic voting for the runoff upset. 

Now, the Tea Party favorite might try to wield his influence in the special election. Earlier this year, McDaniel launched the United Conservatives Fund (UCF), a super-PAC, to aid social and fiscal conservatives in the Magnolia State. 

The group has been interviewing candidates and is in the process of deciding whether it will back a candidate.

“We want to find a principled conservative champion who will fight for conservative beliefs,” McDaniel told The Hill. 

But while the huge group of contenders might seem primed for a bruising repeat of 2014, Republicans in the state seem at peace, believing that a candidate with cross-party appeal and solid conservative bona fides will emerge from the field of accomplished public officials and businessmen and women in the race.

“I like this group; it’s a good field of individuals,” McDaniel said. “I think the race last year awakened a lot of people to the problems we face, so you’re seeing a lot more people engaged in the system. That’s a positive from my standpoint. The fact that there are so many candidates, it’s going to be impossible for them not to focus on the issues in order to distinguish themselves. I can’t wait to watch these debates.”

For now, Tagert and Kelly are tenuously favored to advance to the runoff.

Tagert is widely known in northern Mississippi and will be well funded. Kelly also benefits from broad name recognition in the district and could compete on a financial level with Tagert.

A host of other Republican candidates could contend for a runoff spot, too. 

State Sen. Nancy Collins, who replaced Nunnelee in the state Senate, has earned respect and a statewide profile by working closely with Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves (R) on an education reform initiative for children with special needs.

Boyce Adams, a young businessman, has privately told some people in the state that he could self-fund his campaign, potentially pouring half a million dollars into the election. He is the first candidate up with TV ads in northern Mississippi.

Adams has run for office before, losing to Democrat Brandon Presley, a distant relative of Elvis Presley, in the 2011 race for Public Service commissioner. Presley would have been a top-tier candidate in the 2015 special election and the Democrats’ best hope to win the open House seat, but he’s not running.

Henry Ross, a former Navy officer, is another candidate who could appeal to the Tea Party. He has an existing campaign infrastructure, having failed twice in challenging Nunnelee from the right. 

Other declared candidates include Chip Mills, a county prosecutor and son of a well-known judge in the state; Quentin Whitwell, a former Jackson councilman; Danny Bedwell, a retired Navy diver who has run for the House before as a libertarian; attorneys Greg Pirkle and Daniel Sparks; Sam Adcock, a Daimler-Benz executive and former legislative director to former Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.); and Ed Holliday, a dentist from Tupelo who is aligned with the Tea Party. He is running as “Doc Holliday.”

The race could also be turned on its head by a late entrant.

Nunnelee’s widow, Tori, has been rumored as a candidate, as has his son, Reed, a Jackson-area lawyer. Todd Wade, a former NFL offensive tackle from Oxford, has also been mentioned.

GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney won this district by 25 percentage points in 2012, and only one Democrat could make it an interesting race. 

Former Rep. Travis Childers (D-Miss.) won the special election to replace now-Sen. Roger WickerRoger Frederick WickerSenate Republicans demand Google hand over memo advising it to hide data vulnerability Shipping companies want Congress to increase shipping truck size Ricin attacks will continue MORE (R-Miss.) in 2008, although Nunnelee easily beat him in 2010. Childers failed in his Senate bid last year. 

But perhaps the biggest wildcard in the race isn’t a candidate, but rather a county.

The bulk of the 1st District, and much of the political energy, lies in the northeast portion of the state. However, in 2014, McDaniel pulled heavily from DeSoto County, a suburb of Memphis in the northwest.

DeSoto County isn’t more conservative than the rest of the district, but it’s less beholden to traditional Mississippi politics. Many DeSoto County residents frequently travel north into Tennessee, where they work or send their kids to school.

Surprisingly, none of the declared candidates hail from that part of the state, leaving it wide open for someone to swoop in and win the region, as McDaniel did in 2014. Perhaps mindful of this, Mills, the Itawamba County prosecutor and son of well-regarded judge Mike Mills, has hired a public relations professional from Memphis to manage his campaign.

“Some large bloc of votes in DeSoto will be up for grabs,” said Barbour, the GOP strategist. “Whoever is running the smartest campaign will be active over there and try to steal that.”