Democrat Childers takes First District after tough battle

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Published: May 19,2008

After a seemingly endless parade of primaries and runoffs, Mississippi’s First Congressional District finally has a representative. At least temporarily.

Democrat Travis Childers outpolled Republican Greg Davis in the May 13 special general election and will fill Roger Wicker’s old seat on an interim basis until the general election in November.

Childers, the Prentiss County Chancery Clerk, got 54% of the vote.

Childers and Davis, the mayor of Southaven, had been locked in a bitter campaign since a runoff in April left them as the two remaining contenders. Special interest groups had flooded media markets with attack ads. Davis tried to link Childers with Barack Obama and the controversy involving Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Childers chided Davis for refusing to sign a pledge saying he would not support any new NAFTA-like trade deals.

Childers got approximately 8,000 more votes than Davis, a trend that started with the early round of primaries. Despite near blanket support from voters in DeSoto County, Davis struggled everywhere else in the district.

The race took on the tone of a geographical rivalry — with DeSoto County wanting to establish itself as a power player in North Mississippi politics by seating a congressman, and the rest of the district — mostly rural outside of Tupelo — trying to hold its ground. Results bore that out. Davis won DeSoto County and little else. Grenada, Tate, Lowndes by a small margin and Webster counties went for Davis. Even heavily Republican Lee County in Tupelo cast their lot with Childers.

The National Republican Congressional Committee, the group behind the negative ads directed toward Childers, took notice.

“We are disappointed in tonight’s election results. Though the NRCC, RNC (Republican National Committee) and Mississippi Republicans made a major effort to retain this seat, we came up short,” NRCC chairman Tom Cole said in a statement.

“Tonight’s election highlights two significant challenges Republicans must overcome this November. First, Republicans must be prepared to campaign against Democrat challengers who are running as conservatives, even as they try to join a liberal Democrat majority. Though the Democrats’ task will be more difficult in a November election, the fact is they have pulled off two special election victories with this strategy, and it should be a concern to all Republicans.”

Said Childers in a statement: “Our victory was a great win, not for any political party, but for the working families of North Mississippi who need someone to stand up for them and get results.”

Marty Wiseman, director of Mississippi State’s Stennis Institute of Government, said after candidates had qualified in January that a conservative Democrat could win the District.

“I simply thought if he could knit together the Jamie Whitten Democrats in the eastern part of the district and the Delta voters who vote Democrat no matter what, he could win,” Wiseman said the day after the election. “And that’s what he did. Not only did he identify them, he got them to the polls.”

Wiseman said Davis ruffled some feathers in Tupelo when Davis was still battling for the Republican nomination with Lee County’s Glenn McCullough, Tupelo’s former mayor.

“That got Tupelo mad,” Wiseman said. “So, voters there started voting to protect Tupelo. Because of that, Davis didn’t broaden his base (outside of DeSoto County).”

And the simmering rivalry Tupelo has developed with DeSoto County fueled Childers’ victory.

“Tupelo was caught off-guard (with Davis attacking McCullough),” Wiseman said. “Tupelo didn’t want to share the spotlight with anybody. For what seems like forever, when you thought of the First District, you thought of Northeast Mississippi and Tupelo.”

So Childers will soon travel to Washington and go about the business of being a congressman. But a lot of his time will be devoted to campaigning in an effort to ensure his stay in Washington lasts beyond next winter. That will leave precious little time for actual work related to bill debate and passage.

“What Childers needs to do is hope an issue comes up that is critically important to the First District and come down on the right side of it,” Wiseman said. “And even then, this campaign is by no means over. Greg Davis is nobody’s fool. He’s smart. He’s tenacious. This was not the end. This was just the beginning.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Clay Chandler at clay.chandler@ msbusiness.com .

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