Mississippians will be heading to the polls next Tuesday, June 3. All of the state's four congressional races and one of its Senate seats are at stake in party primaries. Over the next three days, MPB News will take a closer look at candidates in two of the races.
In part one, MPB Gulf Coast reporter Evelina Burnett looks at Mississippi’s Fourth District House Race, which is shaping up to be one of the most unusual primaries in the state. Incumbent Steven Palazzo is facing off against a crowded field of rivals – including long-time former Democratic Congressman Gene Taylor.
Steven Palazzo shakes hands and greets guests at a Harrison County Republican Club meeting in Gulfport. Palazzo is facing four challengers in the June 3rd Republican primary. Several primary candidates are here tonight, but it’s Palazzo who is the guest speaker. That’s one of the traditional perks of being the incumbent, after all – you’re the one who gives the Congressional updates.
It’s a sign of the times that this is the race to watch – it’s almost certain whoever wins the Republican primary will win the election in November.
Pete Wilson is past president of the Harrison County Republic Club. He expects the primary will have a big turnout, and he says he's just happy to see the candidates vying for voters by being the most conservative.
"Whether they are truly conservative, I have my own opinions," he says. "But at least we have candidates who are, I think, appealing to the voters in the right way."
Palazzo is expected to face the biggest challenge from Gene Taylor, who represented this district as a Democrat for 21 years, from 1989 until he lost to Palazzo in 2010. The loss was part of a national sweep that won Republicans control of the House, and Taylor is now running as a Republican.
That makes this an unusual election, says Joseph Parker, a long-time, now retired, political science professor at the University of Southern Mississippi. Parker thinks Taylor is likely facing an uphill battle, not least because Palazzo has a lot more campaign cash.
"That sort of reflects itself in the number of ads I see for each candidate," Parker says. "It's a substantial advantage - incumbency and financial advantage combined."
But if incumbency is an advantage in part because of name recognition, Taylor has that too. At a church festival in Biloxi, the former Congressman is stopped repeatedly by supporters, to shake his hand, wish him luck, even get his autograph.
"Thank God you're running," says Eugene Stronko of Vancleave. Stronko, a retired Seabee, says he's a devout Republican supporting Taylor this time around.
"He's grassroots," Stronko says. "He's hometown local people, and he tries to help out us local people."
Palazzo has his strong supporters as well, such as J.B. Brown of Wiggins, who organized a meet-and-greet for the Congressman in a leafy park in Wiggins. In 2010, Palazzo's support in the northern, more rural counties in the district were key to his victory.
"He's been very receptive to the issues we've had in rural areas," Brown says. "We've got a lot of issues with the EPA and regulations, and Steven didn't claim to know everything, but he's been very receptive and he listens. I appreciate that."
In his almost four years in Washington, Palazzo has nabbed some good committee appointments, including the House Armed Services committee, a crucial spot for his district, which relies on military spending from bases to building ships.
"Two weeks ago, I was able to get funding for a twelfth amphibious assult ship, which is built right here in south Mississippi," Palazzo says. "It's good for our economy, it's good for our shipbuilders, but most importantly, it's what the Marine Corps wants and they need so that they can do their job and keep our sailors and Marines safe."
But Palazzo has also made some missteps during his time in office, perhaps most notably when he faced national criticism for his vote against a flood insurance reauthorization bill after Hurricane Sandy.
Palazzo stands behind the vote, which reauthorized the borrowing limit for the flood program, which was already $24 billion-dollars in the red.
"It wasn't that I was opposed to it," he says. "I wanted to bring attention to the fact that this program needs to be reformed. It's broke, and we can do something. But the thing is we haven't done anything in the seven years since Hurricane Katrina, and Hurricane Katrina is the one that basically added that $20 billion on there - and I'm not lost to that fact. I'm very sensitive to it."
But Taylor calls the vote "unforgivable" and says he wants to go back to Washington in part to mend fences in case of another natural disaster.
"Camille and Betsy were only four years apart, so we could be well on borrowed time before the next hurricane," Taylor says. "We're going to need a congressman who can stand in the well of the House and say, 'I was there for you every time you had a natural disaster, and I'm asking for your help.' Steven Palazzo can't do this."
On the campaign trail, Taylor also points out his own work in Congress supporting the military, such as lifetime health care for veterans. Taylor says his party switch reflects the larger shift in Mississippi politics, from a Democratic stronghold to now solidly Republican. But the former Congressman says his values haven't changed.
"I've always been pro-life," he says. "I've always believed in a person's right to own a gun. I've always believed in a balanced budget. I've fought very hard for our military and our military retirees. That's not going to change."
For his part, Palazzo is running campaign ads calling Taylor a "career politician" and "lifelong Democrat" and highlighting his own efforts to introduce term limits, end Obamacare and defend "faith and family."
It's not clear yet if Republicans will buy into Taylor's recent conversion, but another question mark is what Democrats will do this June 3rd. Retired political science professor Joseph Parker says that may be one of the keys for Taylor.
"Can he convince Democrats who voted for him when he ran as a Democrat to vote in a Republican primary?" Parker muses. "It can be done. There's not much going on the Democratic side to keep a voter locked in there, but that's in unknown territory."
In addition to Palazzo and Taylor, three other candidates are in the Republican primary – Tom Carter, Tavish Kelly and Ron Vincent. With this crowded field, many election watchers are predicting that no candidate will get the majority needed to win, forcing a run-off.