Friday, Sep. 24, 2010

Mississippi's 1st Congressional District: Travis Childers vs. Alan Nunnelee

For the Republican Party to match the stratospheric expectations set for it in November's midterm elections, it needs to recapture seats like Mississippi's 1st Congressional District. The GOP stronghold had been in Republican hands for 14 years when Democrat Travis Childers wrested it away in 2008 in a special election held to replace Roger Wicker, who vacated the perch when he was appointed to Trent Lott's U.S. Senate seat. Childers swept into office on a furious wave of his own, buoyed by an influx of first-time Democratic voters amid Barack Obama's candidacy and an opponent tarnished by George W. Bush's benighted presidency. If Democrats are indeed an endangered species across the nation during this cycle, then surely they would be easy prey in northern Mississippi, ranked among the country's most conservative enclaves.

And yet Childers, a former county clerk with a mustache and a thick drawl, won't be dislodged easily. A pro-gun, antiabortion member of the party's moderate, fiscally conservative Blue Dog faction, Childers maintains high job-approval and favorability ratings (54% and 57%, according to a recent poll). He's also outraised his Republican challenger, Alan Nunnelee, who endured a bruising primary battle and had $233,205 on hand as of June 30 — about one-quarter of Childers' war chest.

Polls have painted an incomplete picture of the race, with Childers claiming a five-point lead in a September survey conducted by a Democratic pollster and Nunnelee notching a 50%-42% edge in a survey conducted by his own camp. Election handicappers like the Cook Political Report and the New York Times have rated the race a toss-up, while others — including the University of Virginia's Center for Politics and forecaster Nate Silver's — project the seat to flip back to the GOP.

For the most part, Childers' voting record has insulated him from strident attacks. He is among the most conservative members of the Democratic caucus, having cast votes against health care reform, cap-and-trade and TARP. His track record has earned him endorsements from the NRA, National Right to Life and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "I said I would be independent; vote pro-life, pro-gun; oppose big-spending budgets and Wall Street bailout. I've done what I said I would do," Childers, 52, explains in a recent ad, which juxtaposes the down-home rep, clad in a blue Oxford shirt and leaning against a fence post, with his opponent, whom he derides as a "typical politician" and blasts for breaking a pledge not to raise taxes.

Nunnelee, 51, hasn't gone particularly negative, devoting the bulk of his messaging to the subject of job creation. "The most important issue facing Mississippi for the remainder of my lifetime is going to be jobs," Nunnelee said during a visit to Mississippi's DeSoto County, the district's largest, earlier this month. He has, however, pounded Childers for his vote in favor of the Obama Administration's $787 billion stimulus act; in a recent ad, he lacerated Childers for backing an "artificial stimulus propped up with borrowed government dollars that our grandchildren will have to repay."

But while party bosses have aligned with Nunnelee in the wake of his primary win, the challenger's greatest asset may be his opponent's vulnerabilities — from Childers' incumbency to his membership in a reviled Democratic caucus anchored by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, whose name is invoked frequently on the trail. A state senator and businessman from Elvis Presley's hometown of Tupelo, Nunnelee may also get a boost from the National Republican Congressional Committee, which will make a significant ad buy in the district — another sign that it is a vital one for the party to carry. After all, if the GOP can't snatch back a favorable district nestled deep in the heart of the South, the towering wave pundits have projected may turn out to be more like a series of ripples.