Three days after the death of Rep. Alan Nunnelee, R-Mississippi, no one in either party wants to publicly discuss the possible succession to him for the northern First District seat. Rather than talk about who will succeed the three-term congressman, several sources told us that it is a time to show sympathy for wife Tori and their three children.
But some of the same sources in the Magnolia State did talk to us under promise of anonymity. Most agreed that Republicans will probably hold the district that now-Sen. Roger Wicker first put in their column back in 1994.
Some, however, cautioned that a divisive battle for the GOP nomination could possibly lead to Democrats regaining the seat if they nominate one of their few "superstars" in Mississippi: Brandon Presley, a state public service commissioner and distant cousin of Elvis Presley, himself a native of the First District (Tupelo).
Such a scenario took place after Wicker was appointed to a Senate vacancy in 2008.
Republicans had a spirited and divisive fight for the nomination to succeed him in the resulting special election. Eventual nominee and then-Southaven Mayor Greg Davis could never unite the party and ran what many Mississippi Republicans agree was a lackluster campaign.
Democrat and Prentiss County Chancery Clerk Travis Childers won the race with 53 percent of the vote. (Defeated by Nunnelee in 2010, Childers was the losing Democratic Senate nominee in 2014.)
Under state election law, Republican Gov. Phil Bryant has to call an election within 60 days of the seat becoming vacant (which officially happened on Feb. 6, following Nunnelee’s death from brain cancer at age 56). Each party will nominate candidates for a special election in which, if no candidate wins an outright majority, a runoff will be held between the two top vote-getters.
Among Republicans, the names most often mentioned are those of Mike Tagert, a state transportation commissioner for northern Mississippi, and Glenn McCullough, former Tupelo mayor and former chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority. Others beginning to be discussed as potential GOP candidates are three Oxford residents: State Court of Appeals Judge Jimmy Maxwell, state Rep. Brad Mayo, and former Jackson City Councilman Quentin Whitwell.
Any of the five Republican possibilities can be expected to vote on the mold of Nunnelee, who had a lifetime rating with the American Conservative Union of 85.11 percent and 66 percent with the Heritage Action Fund.
Starkville Republican Tagert, a Marine Reserve officer, currently serves in an elective office. GOP sources say he has a large network of contacts throughout the district and would be the front-runner for nomination should he choose to run.
McCullough is considered a top fundraiser. Last year, he was a leading campaigner for Sen. Thad Cochran in his nip-and-tuck battle for the GOP nomination. For that, there may be lingering resentment among supporters of conservative runner-up Chris McDaniel, who never conceded to Cochran and disputed his narrow win for months.
In ’08, McCullough was the runner-up in the rancorous nomination battle in the First District, and never quite patched up his differences with Republican nominee Davis (who lost to Democrat Childers).
Should a similar Republican "dust-up" occur in the first special election for the House in 2015, then the odds will go up on a Democratic upset such as that pulled off by Childers in 2008. It is here that the focus on and enthusiasm over Presley among state and national Democrats starts to soar.
Elected mayor of Nettleton at age 24 in 2001 and to his present position as state public service commissioner for northeastern Mississippi in 2007, Presley is considered his party’s best hope for any possible resurgence.
Much like Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, he is universally characterized a "populist" for his skepticism of big utility companies and championship of delivering Internet access to rural Mississippi. Last year, Presley was elected chairman of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners’ Committee on Consumer Affairs.
And inarguably, as several Mississippians agreed, his last name and relation to Elvis can only help in northeastern Mississippi.
Presley resisted calls to take on Gov. Bryant this year, and said he was seeking a third term on the Public Service Commission. But the new developments in the First District and the possibility of a Republican "battle royal" could convince him to change his plans and thus make for a most interesting special election.
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.
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