Hill Country

Mississippi's First Congressional District Race has Drawn a Crowd
by Grant Fox

March 28, 2015

A special election set for May 12, 2015, in Mississippi's First Congressional District has drawn a crowd following Congressman Alan Nunnelee's death on February 6, 2015, due to brain cancer. The district stretches from the GOP vote rich Memphis suburbs in Desoto County, across the Tennessee/Mississippi border, down to Tupelo and on to Columbus in the Golden Triangle. Congressman Jamie Whitten represented the district from 1941-1995 and was the longest serving member of congress upon his retirement. Whitten a Democrat as House Appropriations Chairman brought billions of dollars in federal funding to the district for projects like the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway and the Appalachian Regional Commission. Two decades after Whitten's retirement, the district is now solidly republican and that is reflected in the field of candidates who have qualified.

Here are the candidates who garnered the 1,000 signatures and qualified with the Mississippi Secretary of State:

Boyce Adams, Sam Adcock, Nancy Collins, Edward Holliday, Starner Jones, Trent Kelly, Chip Mills, Greg Pirkle, Henry Ross, Daniel Sparks, Mike Tagert, Quentin Whitwell and Walter Zinn. Please note that a candidate must live in the state of Mississippi, but not in the district. There are no party labels in the special election. Everyone runs in a herd, with the top two vote getters making the runoff.

All of the candidates but for Zinn are Republicans. Most insiders predict a runoff between Transportation Commissioner Mike Tagert and District Attorney Trent Kelly, with Senator Nancy Collins coming in third place. Collins has been polling very well in early samples that have been conducted. In fact, all early polling shows Collins, Kelly and Tagert as the top three in different orders.

Tagert, a Millsaps graduate and former Marine, has represented the entire district as highway commissioner but resides about four miles outside of the district and favors the raising of Mississippi's gas tax. Advocating for an increased gas tax and living outside of the first congressional district will be high hurdles to overcome, but many establishment GOP donors have already joined Tagert's team, and he is said to have a significant fundraising edge over Kelly and Collins. Tagert has the support of many alums of Mississippi State University, which is in the third congressional district, as he lives in Starkville and holds two master's degrees from MSU. His grass roots organization throughout the district is perhaps the strongest due to his current office and existing district. Bully Bloc, the political action committee of MSU alums, has endorsed Tagert; its members are pouring money into Tagert's campaign coffers.

Kelly has longtime GOP consultant Morgan Baldwin of Tupelo in the driver's seat as his campaign manager. Baldwin managed the successful bid of State Senator Alan Nunnelee over Congressman Travis Childers in 2010 and has a proven track record in the district having managed numerous races for justices on the Mississippi Supreme Court. His role in the Kelly campaign gave it instant credibility. Kelly has done something other candidates in the race haven't done: he defeated 36 year entrenched Democrat District Attorney Johnny Young in 2011 and represents about one third of the voters in the congressional district within his circuit court DA district. Kelly, of Saltillo, is a Colonel in the National Guard and served two tours in Iraq. He has received several endorsements from veterans groups and will have broad support from law enforcement as well. A question mark for Kelly is fundraising; insiders wonder if he can raise the dollars he needs with four candidates in the race from Lee County.

Nationally known opposition researcher Gary Maloney has reportedly been in the field working the CD1 race. Maloney is known to GOP insiders by the moniker "The Warden." His clients include former Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour as well Steve Forbes, Mike Huckabee, Mel Martinez, Rudy Giuliani, all four Republican national committees, and several state parties. Maloney is retained to research his own client as well as opponents in any given race. He isn't really looking for rumors and scandalous tales; his research will focus on residency "carpetbagger" issues, tax liens, criminal records and charges and any information contained in public records. As always, it will be noteworthy to see what Maloney uncovers and if any of his research makes its way in to the public domain.

Columbus businessman Boyce Adams at age 29 is self-funding his campaign and has hired Frontier Strategies, the firm that handles political consultanting for Governor Phil Bryant. Adams is a graduate of Vanderbilt and is well connected in GOP circles. Columbus and part of the Golden Triangle were added to the first congressional district in the 2001 redistricting plan ordered by a federal court three judge panel sitting in Jackson, Mississippi. Adams, Tagert, and Adcock all hail from the Golden Triangle. Many political experts don't think a candidate from this area will win the race as it would be unprecedented; they base this opinion solely on the population centers lying in Lee and Desoto Counties.

Collins, the only woman in the race, is doing well on the campaign trail. She is a graduate of Mississippi University for Women and a favorite of W alums. She also has deep connections to the medical community as a registered nurse with a daughter who is a physician as well as a son in law who is a respected cardiologist. Political historians recall that Collins father was a highway commissioner. She is a very loved member of the Tupelo community due to her work with the Sanctuary Hospice House and other community organizations. No one should be surprised if she makes the June 2nd runoff. Two legislative issues will follow Collins on the campaign trail, for better or worse: her efforts to reform Public Employees Retirement System and what is commonly called the "13th check" and her authoring the landmark special needs children's legislation that passed in the 2015 legislative session. Both issues created either constituencies or opponents for her, as is the case with any controversial legislation. Collins is battling history as Mississippi has never elected a woman to congress.

Attorneys Greg Pirkle of Tupelo and Daniel Sparks of Belmont have impressed observers with their speaking skills on the campaign trial. They are both respected members of the bar but relatively unknown. Quentin Whitwell of Oxford, another attorney, is said to have made some serious inroads in Desoto County where he lived as a child. All 12 republican candidates will work hard in Desoto County as a huge block of GOP voters is up for grabs there and none of the candidates is a Desoto County resident. Henry Ross of Eupora and Ed Holliday, a dentist from Tupelo, will both try to capitalize on tea party voters in Desoto County. Chip Mills of Fulton, son of US District Court Judge Michael Mills, is using the same strategy; he hopes to win in the west as his father did when he was elected to the Mississippi Supreme Court in the mid 1990s. Starner Jones, an emergency room physician, Sewanee graduate and Pontotoc native, has worked primarily in the Memphis area and will be courting Desoto County voters as well.

Alumni of the University of Mississippi located in Oxford, which is in the first congressional district, will no doubt want an Ole Miss congressman, and there are plenty of Ole Miss grads in the field to pick from on election day. Of course, the ages of the candidates vary greatly from 29 to 67 years of age. Mississippians normally select younger congressman and senators as southerners tend to rely heavily on seniority in the congress. This prevailing attitude of Mississippi voters concerning age is another factor in the minds of those predicting a Kelly/Tagert runoff. Both men are in their 40s.

Collins, Kelly and Tagert are all running for reelection for their respective offices in the GOP primary in August in additional to running for congress in the special election. Each has a "placeholder" in the August race in the event that he or she is elected to congress. In the event of Collins, Kelly or Tagert not winning the congressional race, the placeholder would withdraw allowing the incumbent to be reelected to his or her current office. This is another issue that could be a factor as many voters don't think candidates should run for two offices in the same year.

Adcock, a former staffer to US Senator Trent Lott, is running a clever TV ad called "The Interview" produced by the Cirlot Agency that has gotten some buzz and given his campaign a boost. Whitwell and Adams have also run early TV ads trying to break out of the pack. The race is a short sprint which means anything is possible. On the June 2nd runoff, many Mississippians will be on the beaches of Alabama and Florida for Memorial Day, unconcerned about politics, but someone will be elected to congress in the rolling hills of North Mississippi.


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