In Mississippi, a new elephant in the room

BILOXI, Miss. — Former Rep. Gene Taylor (Miss.) lost four years ago to Republican Steven Palazzo with a “D” next to his name. In two weeks, he’s hoping an “R” can help him win a rematch.

The party-switching former centrist Democrat is banking on his personal appeal to defeat Palazzo, a Republican who beat him in the 2010 wave election. And as he’s swarmed by admirers at a church fair, many sound willing to welcome the 20-year veteran back with open arms.

“I think we’re either dead even or ahead,” Taylor confidently told The Hill on Sunday.
Squinting under the hot Mississippi sun just off the coast in Biloxi, the former congressman couldn’t even speak for more than a few minutes before being interrupted by a steady stream of supporters stopping by to shake hands or snap a photo.

Though he’s still a long shot, Taylor believes his underfunded, underdog campaign could come out on top on June 3, or at least force Palazzo to a runoff in the five-candidate field.

Taylor said supporters had indicated they’d received polling calls from affiliates of Palazzo and argued the fact that Palazzo hasn’t released any of those numbers must indicate they don’t hold good news for the incumbent.

He speculated that while Palazzo’s numbers “are steadily dropping, our numbers are steadily gaining” as his former constituents realize he’s an option on the ballot. And he said there’s no question he’d win the nomination if it goes to overtime.

“The rule of thumb is the incumbent gets his best vote the first vote. I would much prefer to win outright on June 3, but if there’s a runoff, we’ll win it,” he said.

Taylor’s unlikely path to the nomination is based on the fact that voters know him well and, he asserts, like him better than Palazzo.

“I think after three years of Steven Palazzo, they’re going, ‘What the heck did we do?’ ” he said.

Indeed, supporters stopping by to say hello seemed to confirm Taylor’s hunch. Most chatted with him like old friends, asking about his boat, telling him about their latest family gossip or problems.

Taylor has built his campaign on that kind of interaction, stopping at every church fair and parade he can find, “following the crowds,” as he told a reporter trying to nail him down on the trail.

Palazzo has not been absent from the campaign trail himself, but the second-term congressman doesn’t have the same decades-long relationships to draw on.

He does, however, have the fundamentals of the race working in his favor: He’s outraised Taylor by a nearly 6-to-1 ratio and has outspent him more than 10-to-1.

GOP primary voters aren’t typically known for voting Democratic, and Palazzo and his allies have highlighted Taylor’s vote for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) as Speaker in hopes of turning GOP voters off to him.

“It is my opponent’s lifelong Democrat record that is most concerning to South Mississippians,” Palazzo said in an email. “He was in office over 21 years, and now he wants to return for more. He voted with Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama’s liberal agenda nearly 80 percent of the time while he was up there. He voted for bailouts, higher taxes, and forgot about our beliefs and values. South Mississippians sent him home in 2010 as a Democrat, and they just don’t believe his conversion to the GOP is anything more than political opportunism at its worst.”

But some local Republicans seemed ready to forgive the party switch. W.C. Fore, 73, stopped by to shake Taylor’s hand and said the switch “don’t bother me a bit.”

“I’m glad he switched. He just fits on that side more than he does the Democrat. I think he’s a conservative. I think he’s part of the country, part of the people,” Fore said.

The Hill
5/20/14