By: Sid Salter
With Mississippi’s two 2018 U.S. Senate races predicated on brawling attacks, counter-attacks and philosophical contrasts in party primaries and in the special election, one might expect a similar Pier 6 political donnybrook in Mississippi’s Third Congressional District race to succeed the retiring Republican U.S. Rep. Gregg Harper of Pearl.
But while moderating a two-hour televised candidate forum among the six Republican contenders for the seat, I was struck with the civility of the exchanges as well as the zeal with which the candidates stuck generally to substantive issues while avoiding personal attacks. The candidates talked mostly about themselves, not about their opponents.
The candidate forum, sponsored by WTOK television station and The Meridian Star daily newspaper, was held at Meridian Community College in front of a live audience. Two hours of live TV is an eternity in political discourse. My prior experiences moderating such events over the last 35 years have taught that the likelihood of putting six candidates in front of the TV cameras for two hours and not getting into at least one heated exchanges was slim to none.
But these six candidates conducted themselves both backstage and onstage as ladies and gentlemen. The civility and collegiality that has marked the race to this juncture has drawn some quiet criticism of the “fire in the belly” of some of the candidates trying to break out of the pack and make an expected second GOP primary, but I found the courtesy among the candidates both surprising and refreshing.
Forecasting this race is difficult in that none of the six GOP contenders have track records in a congressional district race and four of the six have no prior political experience. All six claim conservative credentials and expressed support for President Trump. Immigration reform, gun rights, anti-abortion, lower taxes, smaller government peppered almost every response from all six candidates.
But with the backing of Gov. Phil Bryant and winning elections in two of the state’s most populous counties in the heart of the Third District, District Attorney Michael Guest of Brandon has to be considered among the top contenders. Representing Madison and Rankin counties in the state’s judicial system, Guest is familiar to a large number of voters.
Also running out of Madison County is former Mississippi Development Authority and Baptist Health Systems official Whit Hughes, a former varsity basketball and baseball player at MSU. That connection appears to be helping Hughes in the northern counties in the district and in the Meridian area. His fundraising efforts have been impressive.
Perhaps the most intriguing of the six candidates is accomplished international businessman, banker and family cattleman Perry Parker of Seminary. Parker favors term limits and skews perhaps farther to the right than some of the other candidates, but is not possessed of the anger and bellicose rhetoric that grips some who share similar views. Parker’s personal wealth has raised questions about why he seemed to keep his political powder dry in terms of TV time and other marketing, but that has seemed to change in recent days.
There are three women in the race and the most competitive by far is State Sen. Sally Doty of Brookhaven, an attorney with ties to Mississippi University for Women and Mississippi College School of Law. Polished, direct, and well-versed in the give and take of legislative politics, Doty exudes confidence. Geography may prove a challenge in that she will need a dominant showing in the southern counties in order to generate enough votes to make the runoff.
Healthcare consultant Morgan Dunn of Simpson County is a political novice, but has significant business experience. Her rhetoric during the candidate forum was particularly harsh on the topic of “Obamacare” and other government regulation that impacts healthcare. She and her husband also own a restaurant in Magee. She’s a graduate of Ole Miss.
Rounding out the GOP contenders is Katherine “Bitzi” Tate of Jackson. She is an educational consultant.
On the Democratic primary side, State Rep. Michael Ted Evans of Preston, a retired firefighter and currently a poultry grower, will face U.S. Navy veteran Michael Aycox of Newton, who has told the media that he is the first openly gay candidate to seek office in a Mississippi congressional race.
Reform Party candidate Matthew Holland is also seeking the Third District seat.