Gene Taylor was untouchable for twenty years. The self proclaimed Blue Dog Democrat seemed to have mastered the art of riding the proverbial fence, with many in South Mississippi never believing he was a member of the country’s liberal party. For years, Taylor was perceived by voters as an independent within his party and a conservative on those touchy social matters such as gun control and abortion, yet when the liberals needed a key vote, Taylor was there for his colleagues.
Through the years, various Republicans offered themselves up to vie against Taylor, each swiftly defeated as if they were lambs taken to slaughter. Taylor’s sixty-five and seventy percent wins made future Republican challengers wary of running. Some Republicans were afraid to criticize the Congressman in public for fear of voter backlash. Heck, the state Republican Party didn’t even have this seat on their radar. Yet, coast Republican party officials always worked to recruit candidates and spoke with many up and coming elected officials, with most joking off the idea of ever running against Taylor; it was just too steep of a hill to climb. Taylor was an enigma that Republicans just couldn’t seem to decipher… that is until Steven Palazzo came along.
Steven Palazzo did the unthinkable in November 2010 – he beat Gene Taylor. The relative political newcomer and small business owner had taken out the lion of the 4th District. Palazzo’s objective was to effectively tie Taylor to his liberal party’s antics. To accomplish this, he started by linking Taylor to Nancy Pelosi, the liberal and unpopular Speaker of the House. Palazzo’s camp found the video of Taylor casting his vote for Nancy Pelosi as Speaker, followed by applause and cheers from his party. This proved to be damning for the Democrat. Palazzo’s team researched Taylor’s votes and presented a more liberal voting record than most in South Mississippi ever knew. Taylor rode the fence well, but Palazzo capitalized on Taylor’s missteps and the voters responded. Add in the national anti-incumbency sentiment at the time and the new conservative movement springing up around the country and even in South Mississippi and you had a recipe for success. Palazzo had taken on a Herculean task and had done what most Republican insiders thought impossible.
Now, almost a year later and with the heavy lifting over, talk is stirring of Republicans in the 4th Congressional District setting their sights on a run for Congress. One would think Republicans would still be basking in their victory over defeating a twenty year incumbent Democrat, placing Palazzo on a pedestal for doing the unthinkable, but some opportunistic Republicans (perhaps some with illusions of grandeur) are making other plans. Why? Because they know as do most political observers that if you are going to defeat Palazzo, this first election cycle is the time. Once a Congressman gets experience under his belt, he becomes almost impossible to beat (i.e. Taylor) barring a major gaffe.
Palazzo has had a bumpy start in his first eight months in office. He’s been through three Chiefs of Staff and had a number of other staff shakeups both in district and D.C. Of course, Taylor did Palazzo no favors when he left office; Palazzo’s staff had to recreate much of the basics. But the new Congressman seems to have finally righted the ship, opening district offices in key locations while stabilizing his staff. He seems to be focusing much of his efforts on constituent services, which is something his predecessor lacked. His ability to garner a subcommittee chairmanship as well as join the GOP whip team are signs that Palazzo has a future many in D.C. are recognizing. At a recent event in Jackson County, Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) heaped praise on Palazzo for being an effective freshman Congressman for South Mississippi while thanking him for his friendship and pro-active leadership. Now, Palazzo is heading to South Korea as part of a three member Congressional envoy; definitely not something to be taken lightly.
My fear is that a hard fought, Republican primary between Palazzo and some Johnny-come-latelies will do more harm than good in the 4th District (this coming from someone who normally encourages robust Republican primaries). Unifying our conservative base is a must if we are to have an impact on the national stage and gain influence in D.C. I have not heard any rumblings of an in-party challenge to 1st District freshman Congressman Alan Nunnelee nor do I expect a challenge in the 3rd District versus Congressman Greg Harper. Returning all three of the incumbent Republicans to Congress next year would only help advance Mississippi’s cause on the federal level.
The question of what Gene Taylor will do is still out there as well as the rumor that other Democrats are considering throwing their hat in the ring. I do not think the 4th District will return to the Democrat column anytime soon, with one caveat – Gene Taylor. If he runs, Taylor will be viable and give Palazzo all he can handle during the campaign. If Palazzo does draw a tough fight from an in-party challenger, Taylor’s chances go up exponentially.
Conservatives in the 4th District need to think long and hard about where they have been, where they are now, and where they could be if such a scenario plays out. We will not always agree with every decision elected officials make, but having someone with a similar set of conservative principles is far more important than advancing a few opportunistic political ambitions.