Hill Country

Establishment GOP Donors Place Their Bets on MSCD1 Race
by Grant Fox

April 16, 2015

The Federal Election Commission campaign finance reports in the MSCD1 race were filed on April 15, 2015, and the race is now a bit clearer. The surprise candidate in fundraising was Tupelo tax lawyer Greg Pirkle, a graduate of Baylor and Ole Miss Law School. Pirkle raised $156,646 and loaned his campaign another $100,000. He is sitting on $244,753 cash on hand. Another big surprise on the reports was that Senator Nancy Collins, the only woman in the race, faired so poorly, raising a mere $13,680 with $1,780 cash on hand. Collins didn't begin organizing her campaign until the 2015 legislative session ended. In a crowded special congressional election, many establishment donors will commit to the first major candidate who calls and will tell others, "I am committed until the second (runoff)." Pirkle obviously worked the phones early and often. Collins will most likely return to the state senate where she chairs an important committee and has been a leader on education issues.

The perceived frontrunners, Transportation Commissioner Mike Tagert of Starkville and District Attorney Trent Kelly of Saltillo, did about as expected. Tagert raised $246,760 and has $161,209 cash on hand. Reportedly, Tagert raked in $100,000 in a single night at an event at the Ridgeland home of lobbyist John Lundy of the Capitol Resources firm. Mississippi State alums and their political action committee Bully Bloc continue to lead Tagert's campaign forward. Fundraising has been a question mark for Kelly. He raised $95,369 and has cash on hand of $89,554. Kelly's manager, Morgan Baldwin, apparently knows that Tagert has a superior fundraising edge. Therefore, Kelly is saving his money for the stretch in an effort to stay in this race. Experts aren't apt to question Baldwin with his track record in the district and think Kelly is probably a bit closer in finances than the reports actually reflect.

Pirkle will try to erode Kelly's Lee County base as he is well known in the GOP stronghold and is a member of Calvary Baptist Church, where the late Congressman Alan Nunnelee was a member for many years. Pirkle's father was a longtime Union County pastor and his ties to Southern Baptist churches might provide him a pathway to the runoff. For 27 years Pirkle has provided counsel to business owners and wealthy North Mississippians, and they have given him the resources to make a push in this race. His connections to Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann are noteworthy: both have been partners at the Phelps Dunbar law firm; both are tax attorneys and hold advanced tax law degrees from the prestigious New York University School of Law; and both have employed Casey Phillips of the DC firm RedPrint Strategy to run their campaigns. Pirkle's tongue twister ad, "Pick Pirkle," has gotten some traction. Could it be an ad that impacts the race like Hosemann's ad with the elderly lady mispronouncing his name repeatedly? The Gilbert ad was wildly popular.

Several other candidates are positioned to make a run at pushing Tagert or Kelly out of the runoff. Quentin Whitwell of Oxford, a former Ole Miss Student Body President and Jackson City Councilman, raised $96,735 and has $61,112 on hand. He continues to work Desoto County where he was born and lived until he was 13 years old. His parents are natives of Tate County. His father, Bob Whitwell, is a former United States Attorney and currently serves as a Chancery Court Judge. Whitwell will try to execute an eight county strategy of Tate County, Desoto County, and the counties in his dad's chancery court district. Oxford is a tricky base for a GOP candidate as many folks associated with Ole Miss aren't republicans, and often Lafayette County voting patterns don't mirror the remainder of the district. Most likely, no other candidate has a more historical sense of the race than Quentin Whitwell. Bob Whitwell barely missed the GOP congressional runoff in 1994, and his oldest son has carefully considered how that nine candidate race played out. Whitwell has hired Axium Strategies of Kansas City, a firm that boasts of electing more elephants to Congress than any other firm in the last decade.

Thirty year old Chip Mills of Fulton, son of U.S. District Court Judge Michael Mills, raised $101,350 including $30,000 that he gave his campaign. His cash on hand of $85,258 puts him in position to make a run as well. Mills's base overlaps the northern portion of Kelly's Circuit Court DA district; therefore, he also poses a serious threat to Kelly. Mills is using social media strongly and plans a Desoto County push coupled with a strong showing in Itawamba, Prentiss, Monroe and Tishomingo Counties. Mills faces the same dilemma as all outsiders who want to push Tagert or Kelly out of the runoff: what voters can he get out that the other 12 candidates can't get out? Where are the coalition building blocks to propel him into the runoff? Kelly claims guardsman, law enforcement and veterans. Tagert claims his transportation commission supporters and MSU alums. All others must lay claims to voter groups that Tagert and Kelly don't have. And to a degree, they must fly under radar and sneak in to the June 2nd runoff.

Boyce Adams of Columbus, the youngest candidate, raised $72,522 and loaned his campaign $150,408 which yields him a cash balance of $63,498. He went up early on TV and radio and is banking on a bump in name ID to fight his way in to the runoff. Adams has veteran consultants Quinton Dickerson and Josh Gregory and their impressive resume in his camp. Adams is featuring longtime GOP activist Ellen Jernigan of Desoto County in a testimonial ad as he continues to try and breakthrough in the densely populated Memphis suburbs. It remains to be seen if Adams or any candidate in the Golden Triangle can project himself out into the district. Columbus and West Point have only been in CD1 since 2001, and the district hasn't ever elected a congressman from the region.

Sam Adcock of Columbus has been well received on the campaign trail. Adcock, a former Capitol Hill staffer, raised $65,173 and loaned his campaign $120,000. He has $153,908 cash on hand. John Oxford, a former White House Staffer and current Director of Corporate Communication for Tupelo based Renasant Corp, based on pure objectivity believes that Adcock's ad "The Interview" by the Cirlot Agency is the most creative and effective of the race thus far. He lists Kelly's ad "Service" next due to its strong candidate portrayal, followed by the "Tongue Twister/Pick Pirkle" ad which he sites as memorable along the lines of the Delbert/Gilbert/Dinglbert Hosemann campaign.

Edward "Doc" Holliday, a dentist from Tupelo, raised $15,740 and loaned himself $100,000 for a cash on hand balance of $115,740. Starner Jones from Pontotoc, an emergency room physician, raised $12,500 and loaned his committee $200,000 and has cash on hand of $143,337. Jones has stated that he is willing to spend quite a bit more of his personal wealth on his congressional bid.

Nowhere is the fundraising battleground more pronounced than in Tupelo. Former Tupelo Mayor and Mississippi Development Authority Director in waiting Glenn McCullough plans a late April fundraiser in his home for Tagert. McCullough's sister, respected Tupelo businesswoman Mary Connor Adcock, already hosted an event for Pirkle. Establishment GOP donors feel that their odds are better in Tunica casinos than betting on a 13 way special congressional election. Many are giving to multiple candidates or are sitting on the sidelines keeping their powder dry.

The loan tally by candidates to campaigns on the April 15th FEC filings was $775,679: Pirkle $100,000; Adams $150,408: Mills $30,000; Jones $200,000; Adcock $120,000; Holliday $100,000 and Henry Ross $75,271. The CD1 race is certainly big-time economic development for campaign consultants, media outlets and other campaign vendors! A number of investment accounts are being drained in pursuit of a job requiring one to live in airports and miss family events and kids growing up.

It is still a Tagert/Kelly horse race at this point in the stretch. Both men are in the category of Congressmen Gregg Harper on a likability scale. They are close in age. Both have a strong sense of self, are very approachable, and either would serve the district well. Each has a strong resume for public service: Tagert in transportation and economic development; Kelly as a prosecutor with ties to law enforcement. Both men have served in the United States military and both are respected family men. They are both members of United Methodist Churches. Kelly is an avid Ole Miss fan and by his own admission sits in the cheap seats as "they're all I can afford." Tagert lives in Starkville and holds two degrees from Mississippi State. Come Fall of 2015, one of them probably won't have to worry about buying anymore football tickets.


Grant Fox is a native of Chickasaw County and ran for the CD1 seat in 1994. He lived in the district for over three decades. Fox is admitted to practice law in Arkansas, Mississippi, and Tennessee. He also works as a contract lobbyist at the Mississippi Capitol. He and his family live in Rankin County. He may be reached at grant@grantfox.com.


Related articles:
• "Mississippi's First Congressional District Race has Drawn a Crowd" by Grant Fox