How does a Republican unseat a conservative Democrat who voted against Obamacare and cap-and-trade? Mississippi state senator Alan Nunnelee, who spoke with me last week in Washington, thinks he has the answer.
“If you had the opportunity to cast your vote for speaker, would you vote for Nancy Pelosi?” Nunnelee says, referencing a question he frequently asks voters in Mississippi’s First Congressional District. (A usually mild-mannered rotary club in the district once responded to that question with boos.) Nunnelee says he follows up by asking if anyone’s family members or neighbors would vote for Pelosi. Only one man has once raised his hand to say “yes.”
“‘But my neighbor is the congressman,’” Nunnelee recalls the man saying. That congressman is Democrat Travis Childers, who won a special election in May 2008 after Governor Haley Barbour nominated Republican representative Roger Wicker to Mississippi’s vacant Senate seat. Months later, Childers kept his seat in the general election, despite the fact that the district gave John McCain 62 percent of its vote.
Nunnelee, a native of Elvis’s hometown of Tupelo, now leads his opponent by eight percentage points, according to an internal poll of likely voters conducted by the Tarrance Group. More critically for the challenger, Nunnelee’s lead increases to 21 points among voters who are familiar with both candidates. Nunnelee says the GOP primary, after which both opponents lined up behind him, helped raise his profile in the district.
Childers has maintained a moderately conservative record in the House, garnering the support of both the NRA and National Right to Life. But Nunnelee says Childers’s votes against high-profile legislation like health care reform—Childers announced his “no” vote on Obamacare only three days before the floor vote once it looked like Democrats had enough for passage—don’t change the fact that his reliable vote for the Democratic leadership allows Pelosi to stay in power.
In a district as conservative as the first, the association with a liberal like Nancy Pelosi may be enough to sour voters on Childers in 2010. The first’s Cook Partisan Voting Index is +14 for Republicans, and ever since it voted for Democrat governor Ronnie Musgrove in 1999, the district has been trending more Republican.
Nunnelee hopes to capitalize on the GOP trend, as well as the prevailing feeling among people and businesses that congressional Democrats—Childers included—are not working to improve the economy and rein in government spending. “People are very disturbed about the debt, about excessive spending, and about jobs,” Nunnelee says.
Those concerns have manifested themselves in a healthy Tea Party movement in the district. Nunnelee says he is aligned with the Tea Party. “I’m for what they’re for,” he says. “And they’re for what I’m for.” And what about the newly-approved House Tea Party Caucus? “I’m very interested in joining it,” he says.
Despite the “no” votes on Obamacare and cap-and trade, Childers’s record on spending isn’t friendly to Tea Party concerns. He voted for the stimulus bill, which Nunnelee says has not helped stimulate the economy in northern Mississippi. According to Recovery.gov, over $566 million has been awarded in the first district, with a total of 393 jobs created. That’s over $1.4 million per job. Nunnelee says most of that money has gone to the state and local governments, but the jobs in the private sector aren’t picking up.
On financial regulation, Nunnelee believes the Democrats’ plan stifles business growth. Banks, he says, won’t be able to extend loans to businesses who need them. “Around the district, I’ve talked to more local bankers who are scared to death,” Nunnelee says. Childers voted for the House’s financial regulation bill in 2009 but voted against the conference committee bill last month.
And when it comes to extending unemployment benefits, Nunnelee brings up Pelosi again. “Speaker Pelosi says unemployment benefits are economic stimulus,” he says. “Those are bare-bones benefits, [people would] much prefers jobs.” Nunnelee won’t say whether he’d vote against extending benefits; Childers voted for an extension in April.
Michael Warren is a Collegiate Network fellow and editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.