by Alan Lange
Rep. Gregg Harper’s announcement not to seek re-election in 2018 in January has touched off an unexpected political race of sorts. While it was anticipated that the US Senate Republican primary was going to be the one to watch, there now seems to be mounting evidence that the showdown between US Senator Roger Wicker and State Senator Chris McDaniel may in fact not materialize.
One thing seems pretty clear. The race to replace Harper will not be nearly as chaotic as the 13 candidate special election donnybrook to replace the late Rep. Alan Nunnelee in 2015, though it will likely have a higher number of real candidates that have a shot.
The Republican primary, if history is any guide, will be for all the marbles and it’s hard to think that there won’t be a runoff. Here’s my first look at the currently announced Republican candidates for Harper’s replacement and the challenges that each face.
Guest is the District Attorney of Rankin and Madison Counties, the most populous counties in the district. By all accounts, he’s popular in his elected district and in my book has the most momentum out of the chute. He ran unopposed in 2015 and had just under 25,000 voters in Rankin pull the lever for him. Just to put that into perspective, Gregg Harper had right at the same number of Rankin voters in his 2016 primary. Guest’s law enforcement background and his support from that community will be front and center. He’s got good advisors in Josh Gregory and Quinton Dickerson and he should be well financed. His challenge will likely be down district. He does not want this to turn into an “anti-metro area” race where the balance of the district galvanizes around an opponent.
Whit Hughes has a strong Republican pedigree. He worked nationally for Republicans across the country, most notably Elizabeth Dole. He raised money as finance chairman for Haley Barbour in 2003 and Charlie Ross in 2007 (both well-funded campaigns). He then served as Deputy Director at MDA doing economic development work. Most recently he served as Chief Development Officer of Baptist Health Systems and President of Baptist Health Foundation. Though he’s not held elective office, he has a very broad political network both locally and nationally. He will also be well-funded and well-advised (by Austin Barbour). His challenge, being from Jackson/Madison will be to try and leverage his personal and business networks in his home area, but he will have to get lots of votes from the eastern and southern parts of the district (Meridian and Starkville will be key for him). A former MSU Final Four teammate in 1996, he also will likely press MSU alums for all they’re worth.
State Senator Sally Doty from Brookhaven has thrown her hat into the ring. She’s the only legislator at this point in the race, so she’ll no doubt tout her credentials as having the shortest learning curve for Congress. Though she’s not from the most populous part of the district, she’s from the middle of it. Her challenge will likely be money. Her state campaign account had only about $10,000 in it (in a non-election year). However, she starts with very little financial momentum. She will absolutely have to galvanize the non-metro Jackson areas (Brookhaven, Meridian and Natchez) of the district, raise a lot of money and run up the score in less populous parts of the district to get into a runoff. Kyle Robertson is helping on the campaign side and Casey Phillips (of Delbert Hosemann tv ad fame) is helping on her media.
Perry Parker could absolutely be the wildcard in this race. From Seminary, he has family connections to the district through The First Bank, which has been extremely successful. However, he’s spent most of his career outside Mississippi at bulge bracket financial firms like Goldman Sachs and Deutsche Bank and later with his own hedge fund. He’s moved back home and has in recent months been trying to raise his political profile. Parker has done well for himself financially. Were he to commit substantial personal resources to the race and be able to raise/spend over $1 million, he could catch a head of steam. Early signals are that he will have over $250K banked by mid-February and a good chunk of that will be from him personally. He will be advised by Hayes Dent, who took a previously unknown Lynn Fitch and guided her across the finish line in a tight race with no clear frontrunner.
A native of Magee, Morgan Dunn is the Managing Director of a healthcare services company called Vestra, LLC. As a mom and small business owner who’s never held elective office, her challenges will be both money and name ID.
It wouldn’t surprise me if one more real candidate jumped into this race before the qualifying deadline. There are no imminent rumors that I’ve heard, but my gut tells me that one more Republican could eye the field and maybe think they have a shot.
This is a really red district. Democrats historically have had trouble fielding a candidate that even lived in it. As feckless as the state Democrat party seems right now, it’s hard to believe that they mount a credible and well-funded candidate to make a go of it – even for an open seat. The only name that has mentioned is State Rep. Michael Ted Evans. He’s from the east end of the district. He’s known for giving probably one of the most entertaining speeches at the Neshoba County Fair every year. If he hopped in, I can promise that his Neshoba speech as a Congressional candidate would be one for the books.
There could easily be $4-5 million spent all in on a Republican primary and runoff, so watching the early financial reporting from FEC will be a real indicator about where each candidate’s support is coming from.
Stay tuned to Y’all Politics for more on this race, and take this conversation to social media to discuss the issues or candidates in this election.