MENDENHALL — Former U.S. Rep. Travis Childers acknowledges he faces a tough task running for senator in Mississippi, a conservative state that hasn’t chosen a Democrat for that job since Ronald Reagan was in the White House.
Childers doesn’t even mention his party label in his TV ads as he tries to unseat six-term Republican Thad Cochran in the Nov. 4 general election — a race in which Childers has been outspent by Cochran and overshadowed by twists and turns of a GOP primary that was challenged in the courts.
Ask Childers if he plans to support keeping Harry Reid as the Democratic leader in the Senate, and the 56-year-old Booneville resident never quite gives a straight yes or no.
“I’m certainly disenchanted with the leadership right now in the U.S. Senate. I’m disenchanted with both of them. I’m disenchanted with Harry Reid, and I’m disenchanted with Mitch McConnell,” Childers said, mentioning the Nevada Democrat and the Kentucky Republican. “These two men are not getting anything done … and it’s to the detriment of the American people.”
Childers served just over 16 years as chancery clerk in Prentiss County before winning a special election to Congress in mid-2008 from north Mississippi’s 1st District. He served about 2 ½ years as a Blue Dog Democrat, a group of fiscally conservative southerners who have mostly disappeared from Capitol Hill.
He was swept out of office by a Republican wave in November 2010, when challenger Alan Nunnelee portrayed the short-term incumbent as beholden to House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California. The criticism stung because Childers had voted against the Democratic party line on some issues, including, crucially, against President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul.
“I’m proud to be a Democrat,” Childers told The Associated Press during a recent campaign swing through south Mississippi. “But I realize my party is not always right, nor is theirs.”
Childers said he considered the Affordable Care Act too big and too complex, although he said he agrees with some of its mandates, including provisions that allow people up to age 26 to remain on their parents’ insurance. Childers also said it was right to stop insurance companies from denying coverage to people with pre-existing conditions, and to lift the lifetime cap on benefits that could be paid for coverage.
“Those who keep yelling and screaming they want to repeal the Affordable Care Act, they know good and well it’s not going to be repealed,” Childers said, noting that even if Republicans win control of the Senate, they’re unlikely to have enough votes to override the president’s veto of any repeal legislation.
Childers bristled as he said “Republicans sat on their hands” during the long debate about the health overhaul.
“I was there. They offered no solutions. No help. Nothing,” he said. “I think it’s time they say what their plan is.”
Outside the Simpson County Courthouse in Mendenhall, Childers stopped to ask two women for their support. The younger of the two, 24-year-old Jessica Sloan of Meridian, was trying to put on a long silver necklace as she walked. Childers, who has a daughter about Sloan’s age, offered to help. She smiled and paused while he stood behind her and fastened the clasp at the back of her neck.
“I want you to remember this day that YOUR United States senator put a necklace on you,” Childers said.
After Childers walked away, Sloan said: “I already decided to give him my vote.” She said she is from a family of “devout Democrats,” but she doesn’t vote based on party label.
“Mississippi needs a change,” Sloan said. “Thad Cochran is getting on up there in age. It’s time for something new.”
Cochran, 76, served six years in the U.S. House before winning a Senate seat in 1978. This year, he faced his toughest re-election challenge yet, as a tea party-supported state senator, Chris McDaniel, tried to unseat him in the Republican primary.
McDaniel edged Cochran in a three-person primary June 3, but Cochran rebounded to defeat McDaniel by 7,667 votes in the runoff three weeks later. McDaniel filed a lawsuit in early August, claiming that voting irregularities should overturn the runoff results. A circuit judge dismissed the suit, saying it was filed too late. McDaniel appealed to the Mississippi Supreme Court, which ruled that it would not revive his lawsuit.
While Childers says he has focused on his own campaign and not the Republican primary dispute, he said: “That fight sucked the oxygen out of the room.”
State election officials several weeks ago prepared a general election ballot listing Cochran as the Republican nominee, Childers as the Democratic nominee and Hattiesburg resident Shawn O’Hara as the Reform Party candidate. O’Hara has run more than a dozen low-budget campaigns for various offices the past two decades, never winning.
The Federal Election Commission website shows the Cochran campaign had spent $6.3 million through Sept. 30, while Childers had spent $231,869.
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