There are no guarantees in politics, but Joe Nosef feels pretty confident in his prediction regarding the May 12 special election for Mississippi’s open congressional seat.
“A Republican is gonna win,” says Nosef. “The question is, which Republican is it going to be?”
You might expect Nosef, as the chairman of the Mississippi Republican party, to say that. But it’s not just partisan bluster. Though there are no party identifications on the special election ballot, of the 13 candidates vying to represent the state’s First Congressional District, and all but one of them are Republicans. (The top two vote-getters will most likely proceed to a June 2 runoff). The lone Democrat, Walter Zinn, got in the race at the last minute, and while Democrats have represented the First as recently as 2011, Mississippi has grown increasingly friendly to the GOP. Mitt Romney won 62 percent of the vote in the district, which has a R+16 tilt. Republican Alan Nunnelee won a third term in November with 68 percent support.
It was shocking and sudden when, just three months after his landslide victory, Nunnelee died. The congressman had undergone surgery and chemotherapy to successfully treat a brain tumor in 2014, but a new mass struck harder and more quickly. By January, he was too ill to travel to Washington, so a federal judge in Mississippi swore him into office. Nunnelee died in his home on February 6, at the age of 56.
Not long after Nunnelee’s death, the field to replace him began to take shape, with one Republican after another announcing their candidacies. Among the candidates from Nunnelee’s hometown of Tupelo are Trent Kelly, the district attorney who snagged former Nunnelee campaign manager Morgan Baldwin, and Nancy Collins, who holds the same state senate seat that Nunnelee once had. The only candidate from Oxford, home of the University of Mississippi, is Quentin Whitwell, a former Jackson city council member who moved up to Oxford and into the district just last year.
At the moment, the two strongest Republicans in the race are Mike Tagert and Boyce Adams. Tagert, 44, is one of the state’s three transportation commissioners, the only elected office he’s ever held. Sam Hall, the political correspondent at the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, says the powerful political operation of former governor Haley Barbour is “expected” to coalesce behind Tagert. He technically lives just a couple miles from the district line in Starkville, the location of Ole Miss rival Mississippi State. A graduate of Millsaps College and Mississippi State, Tagert served in the Marines from 1988 to 1994, and later worked for transportation and business development groups in Northern Mississippi.
First elected in a special election in 2011, Tagert is just the second Republican on the commission and the first from the northern district. The position has given him the visibility and fundraising prowess to be a top competitor for Nunnelee’s seat. Despite Tagert not living within the district lines, he says he knows the area and its constituents well. “I have represented all 22 counties in the district as transportation commissioner,” he says. That’s a built-in base, another advantage for Tagert.
But the position has given Tagert’s opponents some ammunition. Last year, the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal reported that Tagert suggested the state should consider a 5 cent-per-gallon increase on the fuel tax, which currently sits at 18.4 cents a gallon. The unhappy choice, Tagert argued, was between a tax increase and failing to maintain Mississippi’s roads and bridges. According to the paper, Tagert said “The only thing worse than a tax increase is to irresponsibly fail to maintain” roads and bridges.
In an interview, Tagert insists he’s not for a federal gas tax increase. “That’s not something we’ve ever proposed,” he says.
The untimely death of Nunnelee has made for an odd quirk in Tagert’s candidate status: Like many other state officials running for Nunnelee’s seat, he is up for reelection to in November, and had filed to run again for the transportation commission. If Tagert loses the House race, he’ll be able to still run for reelection to the commission.