The unexpected death of Congressman Alan Nunnelee has thrown the Mississippi GOP into scramble mode as they struggle to find a replacement. Under Mississippi law special elections are non-partisan affairs which means in a crowded field a Democratic could hypothetically act and behave like a Republican. The GOP’s saving grace is that a run-off would occur if no candidate hits the 50% mark.
The district is solidly Republican, taking in Desoto County and formerly Democratic Northern Mississippi but it represents to very different wings of the party. Many voters in Desoto County live in the Memphis suburbs and while they affiliate with Mississippi they have a different political culture. Desoto County Republicans tend to be the hardline Tea Party and libertarian type. Voters in much of the rest of the district are traditionally Democratic but have been increasingly drawn to the GOP on fiscal and cultural issues.
Such a divide can be illustrated by two cases. The first, illustrated by Stu Rothenburg can be viewed here. The second case is more recent and involves the 2014 Mississippi Senate primary and run-off between Thad Cochran and Chris McDaniels.
Thad Cochran has long represented the traditional Mississippi GOP, fiscally and culturally conservative but also “getting mine.” McDaniel’s style was more confrontational and direct. In the initial primary where McDaniels won statewide he only managed to win the 1st district’s vote total but he did so because he carried 62% of Desoto County’s 9,300 votes. He lost the majority of counties in the district. In the run-off McDaniel increased his margin in Desoto County to 69% out of over 18,000 votes. But reflective of the district GOP’s divide and Cochran’s strength he ran strong in Tupelo and culturally conservative and rural areas in the district and statewide.
This gives Democrats their opening. Find a conservative candidate with appeal to the district can exploit the GOP’s divide, especially if Republicans split along Tea Party vs. traditional Republican lines. But this is easier said than done.
Since the last time Democrats were able to exploit GOP divisions in the state in 08 partisan polarization has dramatically increased. Consider that between 2009 and 2010 almost half of the South’s majority-white seats had Democratic representation. Following 2010 and 2012 that number had shrunk to one and John Barrow’s defeat in 2014 means there are more black Republicans than white Democrats in the Deep South.
The line a Democrat would have to walk to not just win a non-partisan special election but a partisan general election is incredibly thin. Travis Childers won an open seat race in 08 on the back of increased black turnout and a weak GOP opponent. Notably, Childers won every county in the district short of Desoto. But in 2010, when black turnout dropped and whites turned against Democrats Childers lost by 15% to Alan Nunnelee who united the wings of the GOP around a platform of “anybody but a Democrat.”
Keep in mind 2010 was before we have had the last three years of gridlock, culture wars and the like as well. Plus, as mentioned above, at least there were still some white Southern Democrats left. For a Democrat to win this district everything, and I mean everything would have to go right to replicate Childer’s success.
First, they would have to be lucky enough to face a weak general election Republican (in an expected run-off). Second, they would need this Republican to alienate one of the two wings of the party. Thirdly, they would need to be able to distance themselves from the national Democratic brand and President, something increasingly difficult today in federally polarized races.
It might still be all for naught if the state has permanently turned away from any Democrat. Case in point, 2014. Despite Cochran winning a divided primary run-off he still managed to beat Childers handily statewide. Childers only won three counties in his old district and lost the state by over 20%.
Democrats should obviously try to win the district if for no other reason than they could get lucky. But all the factors would be stacked against them. Much as Democrats have done with NY 10 (a more winnable special election) the party is unlikely to invest much in the race and that would spell certain doom for a Democrat even in a Republican divided district.