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GOP Looks to Avoid Primary in Race Against Childers

After the GOP’s stunning 2008 special election loss in Mississippi’s Tupelo- and Southaven-based 1st district, on Wednesday the party took a big step toward avoiding another divisive regional primary fight in the Magnolia State.

State Sen. Merle Flowers, who hails from Southaven and was in Washington, D.C., earlier this month meeting with National Republican Congressional Committee officials, has decided to forgo a Congressional bid. His decision clears a major obstacle from the path of state Sen. Alan Nunnelee (R), who is from Tupelo and is now the clear favorite of party leaders among the announced candidates.

“My family and I made a decision that at this particular time I would not be a candidate,— Flowers said on Wednesday. “We appreciate all the encouragement that we’ve received. It’s very important that Republicans take back that seat. Our district deserves representation that’s not going to be a puppet for [Speaker] Nancy Pelosi [D-Calif.] and her liberal Democratic friends.—

Democrats argue that it will be hard to paint freshman Rep. Travis Childers (D) as a partisan.

“Travis Childers has been hard at work creating jobs, cutting taxes for middle-class families and working to rein in out-of-control spending,— DCCC spokeswoman Jessica Santillo said. “He has been ranked as one of the most independent Members of Congress.—

Still, Flowers’ decision doesn’t exactly gift-wrap the primary for Nunnelee. There is no lack of excitement in GOP circles to challenge Childers, and there’s talk of other potential GOP candidates getting into the race before the state’s January filing deadline. Former Eupora Mayor Henry Ross (R) has signaled his interest in seeking the nomination, and there is speculation about interest from political commentator Angela McGlowan, millionaire businessman Sam Haskell and former NFL star Wesley Walls.

But the NRCC, which had been high on both Flowers and Nunnelee, had no problem talking up the Tupelo state legislator on Wednesday.

“Travis Childers can claim credit for little more than helping Barack Obama stimulate’ massive debt and rising unemployment,— NRCC spokesman Andy Sere said. “A record like that ensures a formidable challenge in North Mississippi, and Alan Nunnelee’s strong conservative record of working with [Republican Gov.] Haley Barbour to create jobs makes him well-prepared to give Childers a tough fight.—

He may not be running, but Flowers didn’t go so far as to endorse Nunnelee.

“I don’t know who all the other candidates are who may or not get into this race,— Flowers said. “It’s a long time to qualifying for this — certainly some other folks are jockeying for position.—

Back in 2008, Southaven Mayor Greg Davis (R) and former Tupelo Mayor Glenn McCullough (R) dragged the party through a nasty special election primary and runoff, which Davis ultimately won by just 2 percent.

The primary battle was one of the main reasons why Republicans lost control of a district that former Rep. Roger Wicker had held for 14 years before being appointed to the Senate. Another reason was the fact that Davis, hailing from the fast-growing Memphis suburb, wasn’t able to connect with the district’s rural voters as well as Childers did with his down-home style.

And while Davis earned overwhelming support in Southaven and around the Republican stronghold of DeSoto County, Childers pulled in most of the rural vote and held his own in Tupelo.

One Mississippi Republican strategist said that if Nunnelee were the nominee, he could count on another strong performance from DeSoto but could also perform better than Davis in Tupelo. Nunnelee also has more of a down-home, country style and would likely do better than Davis in the district’s rural counties.

“You don’t have to just be a Bubba to get elected,— the strategist said. “Roger Wicker’s not a Bubba. The problem was Greg Davis was the opposite of that.—

On Wednesday, Nunnelee said he was encouraged by the support he’d received with rural voters as he has conducted his “listening tour— ahead of filing for the race.

The last stop of Nunnelee’s tour will be next week in DeSoto County, and it’s unclear whether Flowers will be in attendance.

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