With Chip Pickering’s announcement that he will not seek re-election, a list of potential Republican candidates is growing by the day. When Pickering won the seat in 1996, he led a nine candidate field with 27% in the Republican primary before beating Bill Crawford in the runoff, and John Arthur Eaves in the general election. With the district being re-drawn after the state lost a Congressional seat in the last census, the Republican nominee will be the favorite in the general election.
To give some insight into who are contenders and who are pretenders, the potential candidates are listed in tiers. Tier 1 candidates would immediately be serious contenders should they announce they are seeking the office. All of them have run quality statewide campaigns, have name id, and are proven fundraisers. Tier 2-3 would have more challenges to overcome, including questions about fundraising ability, lack of name id, or experience. The “bet” is whether, right now, the potential candidate will enter the race. Of course, the only safe bet is that candidate decisions will change dramatically over the next couple of weeks. We’ll look at the Democratic possibilities in an upcoming article. The list is undoubtedly smaller, and it will likely center on Ronnie Shows, who Pickering beat handily to win the seat.
Tier 1 – The contenders
Tate Reeves. As State Treasurer Reeves has amassed a war chest of approximately $750,000 and faces nominal opposition in his re-election campaign. While he cannot use state campaign donations for the federal race, he could use the money to build his name id during his 2007 re-election effort, could return the money and ask donors to donate to the federal race, or convert it to income and use the post-tax money towards the Congressional race. The historical problem he would have to overcome is statewide elected officials, including Mike Moore, have lost Congressional races while in office. He can boast of his role in helping the state reduce a $700 million budget deficit to a surplus. He is probably one of the only people who can “wait and see” who else hops in the race. Bet: Even money.
Charlie Ross. Ross just lost a tough primary fight for the Republican Lt. Governor nomination to Phil Bryant. Even so, Ross has strong name id after spending over $1.5 million in the campaign. His downside is that he ran the race for Lt. Governor to win it, and has some “scorched earth” in his wake among many in the Republican base. He has a good resume for the job, having served as an Air Force pilot, which would help in Meridian, and will serve as a state Senator from Rankin County until January 2008. He could tout his conservative legislative record and military service when the country is at war. He is rumored to have been making calls seeking support. The bet here is if he can quickly mend some of the hard feelings amongst Bryant supporters, should he decide to run. Bet: Likely In.
Amy Tuck. As Lt. Governor, many would say she drew the district for herself. While she has said she will not run for Congress, she would obviously be formidable should she reconsider whether to do so. She has incredible name id, is a proven fundraiser, and could win the general election. The question remains, however, that after she challenged the Governor on the cigarette/tax swap and overcame the $500,000 Dickie Scruggs loan questions, whether leading Republican donors and primary voters would support her. Bet: Out.
Scott Newton. A tireless fundraiser, the former Republican nominee for Attorney General raised well over $1 million under extremely difficult circumstances in 2003. After running a strong campaign, Newton lost when Jim Hood used over $800,000 in loan and trial lawyer donations received in the waning days of the campaign to run ads featuring Mike Moore. As a former FBI agent and federal prosecutor, he could make a strong case for the job. He has developed a successful law practice, has helped raise over $200,000 for current GOP statewide and legislative candidates in the last year, and is a staunch conservative in a successful law practice. Assuming Hood is re-elected, Newton would be the GOP frontrunner to be AG in 2011, if he decided against running for Congress. Bet: Possibly in.
Tier 2 – The Pack
Mark Keenum. As a recently confirmed Under Secretary at the Department of Agriculture and former Chief of Staff to United States Senator Thad Cochran, Keenum is well qualified for the position. Keenum has strong ties to MSU, twice being runner up to become the school’s President. Keenum is a serious contender on his own, but if he could persuade Cochran to do what he never does – get involved in a primary – he obviously rises immediately. His wife recently left a position as a Senior Advisor to the President and is connected to the RNCC. He has been in DC a long time, but has strong roots in Mississippi – especially to the Bulldog Nation. Bet: In.
Gregg Harper. Though somewhat unknown, Harper, a lawyer and City Prosecutor, is the Chairman of the Rankin County Executive Committee, a long time member of the Republican State Executive Committee, and has close ties to religious conservatives throughout the district. He has helped establish the county party through large fundraising events featuring national figures and has made donations to statewide candidates through it. He is a Rankin County ground gamer who has been planning run for years. Outside Rankin, he has very low name ID. Bet: In.
Nick Walters. Walters is the former Director for the United States Department of Agriculture Rural Development program where he gave away millions in federal grant money throughout the district. Walters was the 1999 Republican nominee for Secretary of State, but failed to raise money and lost, rather handily, to Eric Clark. Bet: In.
Colby Lane In one of the late breaking surprises, several prominent Jackson attorneys have circulated Colby Lane’s name as a potential entrant. Colby, as many know, serves as a Counsel to the Governor. Prior to that, he worked under Dunn Lampton in the US Attorney’s office. A Rankin County native, he grew up in Rankin County Public Schools, went on to graduate from Millsaps College and later Harvard Law School. He is extremely bright and has good connections to the political community. His wife, Erin, is a leader in the Rankin County Republican Women, and they “look the part” as a potential team. Getting in would be a big step for him, and he’s one of those that would have to do it early. Bet: Probably In.
Joe Nosef. After serving as Governor Barbour’s Counsel, Nosef is currently running the Governor’s reelection campaign. He is completely loyal to the Governor, so he will not consider whether to seek the office until early November. In 2003, he ran a strong, well-funded campaign for the state House of Representatives, but lost a primary to a well established incumbent. To his credit, he stayed positive in the race. If the Governor got behind him in early November, he could quickly make up for lost time. Bet: Out.
Whit Hughes. The Deputy Director of the Mississippi Development Authority, Hughes is a proven fundraiser for other candidates after successfully raising money for the Ross’ campaign through the end of last year. Having played basketball on Mississippi State’s Final Four team would clearly help him with the Bulldog Nation. Bet: Possible, but would not likely run against Ross.
Haley Fisackerly. As a newly promoted VP to Entergy Nuclear and former staffer to Senator Cochran is well-connected to Washington and in the district. He could use those connections to raise the money needed to mount a serious effort. He is considered an unlikely candidate, if Keenum decides to run. He has been a strong fundraiser for Barbour and Ross in the last year. Bet: Toss Up.
John Arledge. John has played key roles in the Fordice and Barbour campaigns and administrations. He is now successful in the banking industry in Rankin County. He is probably the best communicator in the entire potential field, but is not a likely candidate at the end of the day. Bet: Out.
Walter Michel. As the State Senator in a district covering northeast Jackson and Madison counties, Michel lost the 1995 race for State Treasurer to Marshal Bennett. The race was too long ago for any residual name id. He has about $200,000 available for his state Senate reelection, which he cannot use directly in a federal race. He was a leading supporter of Ross, which could really make things interesting, and means he should not be waiting on a Chairmanship from the next Lt. Governor. He would have to immediately begin working to develop his lack of name id. Bet: Out, especially if Ross enters.
Gene McGee. Currently the Mayor of Ridgeland, but is not known outside the local area and does not have a reputation for actively supporting candidates for other offices. He would have a small base of voters, but raising his name id in a crowded field would be difficult. His wife has been a leader in the Madison County GOP for years. Bet: Out.
Mary Hawkins Butler. The currently Mayor of Madison has done a good job building the image of the City, but who is not widely known throughout the district as a polarizing figure. In doing so, she has developed an array of political enemies. She was mentioned for other offices in the past. Bet: Out.
Jim Perry. Perry is a well-regarded strategist, who was a staffer for Congressman Roger Wicker and played a key role in Barbour’s 2003 victory. He is currently working on Barbour’s re-election campaign, so presumably cannot seek the office until November. He could benefit somewhat if Nosef or Hughes did not enter the race, but it would be almost impossible for him to raise enough money in a crowded field in just four months to make the runoff. Bet: Out.
Tier 3 – The long shots
John Rounsaville. Rounsaville, who replaced Walters as the current Director for the United States Department of Agriculture Rural Development program, has agricultural staff experience with Barbour and Pickering. He faces a significant problem others on the list do not – he is subject to the Hatch Act, which is a federal law which prevents political activity by certain federal officials, so he cannot legally seek support of any kind until he quits his job and announces for the office. Despite it, he is rumored to have people making calls on his behalf. Bet: In.
Sam Mims. Mims is in the House of Representatives and is from McComb. Like Dunn Lampton, who also finished fourth in the field of nine in 1998, Mims would face a difficult challenge even if there was a huge split among the large number of primary voters are in Rankin, Lauderdale, Jones, and Lowndes Counties, where he is unknown. Bet: Out.
Dean Kirby. Kirby, a Rankin County Senator, risks a possible Senate leadership position under Bryant if he ran, so he is not viewed as a likely candidate. Kirby finished fifth in a primary field of nine in the 1996 race eventually won by Pickering, collecting only 9% of the vote. Bet: Out.
Greg Snowden. Snowden is a House member from Meridian, who would have to overcome many of the same challenges to win. Bet: Out.
Arthur Johnston. Johnston is currently the Chancery Clerk of Madison County. District-wide fundraising would be extremely difficult, meaning he would be seriously challenged to raise his almost universally unknown name id. Bet: Out.
Heath Hall. Hall finished fifth in the field of nine in the 1998 Congressional GOP primary that resulted in Ronnie Shows election over Delbert Hosemann, getting just under 12% of the vote and not raising much money. Bet: Out.
Craig Ziemba. Military service is a district strength, but his unlikely ability to raise money and lack of name id would be an insurmountable two-fold challenge. His newspaper articles may give some pause. He supported Ross in the primary. Bet: Out.
Most people believe that Delbert Hosemann, the GOP nominee for Secretary of State, and Stacey Pickering, the GOP nominee for Auditor, would have sought the office had they been aware that Chip Pickering was not going to run for re-election. The possibility remains that if the field does not develop or if they lose in their general elections, they could immediately pursue a Congressional run. Some would like to see Mike Parker enter the race, as well. Jackson businessman David Landrum, Aubert Kimbrell, Legislative Director for Congressman Wicker, and Gene Walker, the Chairman and CEO of the Bank of Forest, have also been mentioned in the rumor mill, but it is too early to tell if any of them has serious interest in the race. With the exception of maybe Parker, none of them would be in the top tier.
The bench strength that exists on the R side is solid, though many of these potential candidates should consider heeding the call in state legislative races where the need is greatest.