The decision by Third District U.S. Rep. Gregg Harper, R-Pearl, to step down from his post at the end of the year can’t help but bring increased intensity to what already promised to be a watershed Republican primary in Mississippi’s 2018 mid-term congressional elections.
Despite some rather predictable conspiracy theory social media rhetoric from Tea Party or “insurgent” Republicans, Harper’s decision to retire from Congress after a decade of service appears to be exactly what Harper said it was in his formal announcement – a matter of a public servant who never intended to be a career politician coming home to resume his previous life and provide the best life possible for his family.
“Family values” has become a cliché in modern political parlance, but Harper’s personal situation suggests that this lawmaker paid more than lip service to that concept.
Harper and his wife Sidney are awaiting the arrival of their first grandchild from their daughter Maggie and son-in-law Brett. The Harpers have a 28-year-old son, Livingston, who continues his triumphant journey through a life challenged now and always by a developmental disorder called Fragile X Syndrome.
Most politicians not threatened by scandal or impending defeat and whose careers are on a clear trajectory for increased clout and influence simply don’t possess the self-discipline to step away from high office even when significant family responsibilities beckon. Gregg Harper did – and that merits respect and the gratitude of his constituents for a decade of service.
But in practical political terms, Harper’s announcement dropped the political checkered flag on what may prove a free-for-all race to choose his successor the likes of which hasn’t been seen in the Third District since 1996. After former U.S. Rep. G.V. “Sonny” Montgomery decided not to seek re-election to a 16th term in Congress, 12 candidates qualified in the race to succeed him – seven Republicans, four Democrats and an independent.
The donnybrook to succeed Montgomery after 30 years on the Hill was no anomaly. When a special election was needed to choose a successor to First District U.S. Rep. Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, who died in office in 2015, 13 candidates qualified in that election. The winner was current U.S. Rep. Trent Kelly, R-Tupelo.
Seats in Congress don’t come open that often, hence, competition is keen when a seat comes open. That’s particularly true when the vacancy is caused by death or a totally unexpected resignation or retirement.
The Third District seat that Harper is leaving is considered by most in Mississippi as the most solidly Republican district in the state. The effort to carve a Second District that virtually guarantees the election of an African-American to represent the Delta region of the state left the Third District with a concomitant white majority.
Another wide-open large Republican primary in the Third District race to choose a successor to Harper may well have the impact of increasing turnout – which could impact another primary race on the same 2018 mid-term ballot in Mississippi,
Incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker is up for re-election in 2018. Wicker’s already amassed a significant campaign war chest and has the endorsement of President Donald Trump. Some 65 of Trump’s Mississippi county chairmen have likewise endorse Wicker.
State Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Ellisville, challenged incumbent Mississippi senior U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran in 2014 and nearly pulled off a GOP primary victory in what became a $20 million campaign. McDaniel has remained coy about challenging Wicker in 2018, but some believe he may
That 2014 U.S. Senate campaign in Mississippi was the target of “AstroTurf” groups and super PACs (political action committees) on an unprecedented scale. State voters experienced the handiwork of such high-sounding groups as Club for Growth, Senate Conservatives Fund and FreedomWorks — groups that funneled some whopping sums of PAC money into attack ads against primarily incumbent Republicans.
It’s unlikely in the extreme that history repeats itself in that orgy of PAC spending. But one strategy of the “insurgent” Republicans would be to field candidates in every mid-term race in an attempt to drive up turn out among their ideological kindred spirits.
The winnowing process continues as potential candidates jockey for position in the Third District and on both sides of the state’s GOP clear internecine divide, attention is being paid to how they can best get their candidates through a contested primary and onto the General Election ballot.
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at [email protected]