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Potential field taking shape for Nunnelee's vacant Miss. House seat

Alan Nunnelee

Alan Nunnelee

HERNANDO  — Speculation has begun in earnest over who will succeed the late Alan Nunnelee in Mississippi’s First District House seat, and conventional wisdom is that DeSoto County will play a key role in determining who North Mississippi’s next congressman will be.

At least three DeSoto County names — Hernando Mayor Chip Johnson, state Sen. David Parker of Olive Branch and former state Sen. Merle Flowers — are being mentioned among the potential field of candidates for the post, which is expected to remain in Republican hands. Other familiar Republican names from throughout North Mississippi are considered serious contenders as well should they choose to run, and at least one Democrat is mentioned for the seat that was held by Democrat Travis Childers for a term before Nunnelee won it.

Then there’s the Chris McDaniel factor.

Should United Conservatives Fund, the political action committee recently formed by the tea party-backed McDaniel, decide to field a candidate in the race, observers say it could upset the balance for Republican candidates supported by the GOP mainstream. It would also represent the first test of McDaniel’s staying power among voters since his prolonged and acrimonious, but ultimately unsuccessful, challenge of Sen. Thad Cochran’s re-election victory last year.

Before anything can happen. Gov. Phil Bryant has to set a date for the special election to fill the seat. Bryant has 60 days from the date of Nunnelee’s death from brain cancer at age 56 on Feb. 6 to set an election date, and that date must be within 60 days of when Bryant sets it.

Once the date is set, maneuvering will move into high gear for the nonpartisan election to fill the remainder of the second two-year term Nunnelee won just last November. Despite being unable to campaign because of his illness, Nunnelee, of Tupelo, easily defeated Democrat Ron Dickey of Horn Lake.

This time, however, DeSoto County is likely to play a key role in determining who’s on the winning side of the ballot, believes Kevin Blackwell, chairman of the DeSoto County Republican Party.

“If we can get a significant number of our registered voters to turn out, DeSoto will play a pivotal role,” predicted Blackwell, noting that voter turnout for special elections tends to be low. “If we could get 50 percent turnout, DeSoto County would decide the election.”

With more than 90,000 registered voters, heavily Republican DeSoto County is one of the most populous counties in the district, which also includes the Tupelo area.

Marty Wiseman, who is now retired but was the longtime director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University, said the election will highlight the two-sided nature of the district, with DeSoto County and Tupelo again battling to see whether the eastern side of the district or the western side controls the outcome.

As for the influence of McDaniel and his PAC, Wiseman said the election will be the first real litmus test of how influential his conservative backers really are.

“It’s time to see if they put up or shut up,” Wiseman said.

McDaniel, a state senator, ran extremely well in DeSoto County against Cochran in last year’s Republican primary, which McDaniel won, and the runoff, which Cochran won. McDaniel, though, easily carried DeSoto County in both.

McDaniel, from Ellisville in South Mississippi, doesn’t live in the First District, but DeSoto voters might be receptive to a candidate backed by McDaniel and his PAC.

In a statement last week to Roll Call, a Washington-based newspaper that reports on legislative and political happenings, McDaniel said his group has its eye on the First District race.

“The United Conservatives Fund has been contacted by many regarding several prospective candidates to run for the District 1 Congressional seat previously held by congressman Alan Nunnelee,” McDaniel said in the statement. “Our UCF team is currently discussing scenarios and who we might support in the election, if anyone.”

Wiseman also didn’t rule out a Democrat being able to mount a serious challenge in the district, which Childers represented from 2008-2011 after Roger Wicker gave it up to move to the Senate.

Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley, a Democrat who represents North Mississippi on the three-member PSC, has been mentioned as perhaps the most formidable Democratic candidate, but Presley said last week he isn’t interested.

Among Republican possibilities, in addition to the DeSoto County names mentioned, the lengthy list of possible candidates includes Mississippi Court of Appeals Judge Jimmy Maxwell, state Sen. Gray Tollison of Oxford, state Rep. Brad Mayo of Oxford, Highway Commissioner Mike Tagert of Starkville and State Treasurer Lynn Fitch.

Johnson, the Hernando mayor for nearly 10 years, said he had never considered the possibility until he began receiving calls that he should consider a run for the post.

“People from across the state have asked me to run,” Johnson said. “The first couple who ask, it catches you off guard. But the more who ask, who I respect greatly, it makes you take a serious look. So what I would say is that I just want to see how much support there is.”

Johnson said he thinks he was approached in part because there is a feeling that “somebody local,” who knows the needs of individual communities, would be good in the job.

“But I’m not one who would just beat the podium and say ‘no,'” Johnson added, an apparent nod to the kind of conservative hard-liner likely to be supported by McDaniel and his PAC. “If that’s what you’re looking for, I’m not your candidate. I like to be thorough and deliberate.”

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