Should United Conservatives Fund, the political action committee recently formed by the tea party-backed McDaniel, decide to field a candidate in the race, observers say it could upset the balance for Republican candidates supported by the GOP mainstream. It would also represent the first test of McDaniel’s staying power among voters since his prolonged and acrimonious, but ultimately unsuccessful, challenge of Sen. Thad Cochran’s re-election victory last year.
Before anything can happen. Gov. Phil Bryant has to set a date for the special election to fill the seat. Bryant has 60 days from the date of Nunnelee’s death from brain cancer at age 56 on Feb. 6 to set an election date, and that date must be within 60 days of when Bryant sets it.
Once the date is set, maneuvering will move into high gear for the nonpartisan election to fill the remainder of the second two-year term Nunnelee won just last November. Despite being unable to campaign because of his illness, Nunnelee, of Tupelo, easily defeated Democrat Ron Dickey of Horn Lake.
This time, however, DeSoto County is likely to play a key role in determining who’s on the winning side of the ballot, believes Kevin Blackwell, chairman of the DeSoto County Republican Party.
“If we can get a significant number of our registered voters to turn out, DeSoto will play a pivotal role,” predicted Blackwell, noting that voter turnout for special elections tends to be low. “If we could get 50 percent turnout, DeSoto County would decide the election.”
With more than 90,000 registered voters, heavily Republican DeSoto County is one of the most populous counties in the district, which also includes the Tupelo area.
Marty Wiseman, who is now retired but was the longtime director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University, said the election will highlight the two-sided nature of the district, with DeSoto County and Tupelo again battling to see whether the eastern side of the district or the western side controls the outcome.
As for the influence of McDaniel and his PAC, Wiseman said the election will be the first real litmus test of how influential his conservative backers really are.
“It’s time to see if they put up or shut up,” Wiseman said.
McDaniel, a state senator, ran extremely well in DeSoto County against Cochran in last year’s Republican primary, which McDaniel won, and the runoff, which Cochran won. McDaniel, though, easily carried DeSoto County in both.