With allies’ help, Guest, Palazzo head into runoffs in Mississippi

Colleague Trent Kelly held ‘emergency’ fundraisers after primary

Rep. Michael Guest, R-Miss., has been defending his record after being forced into a runoff for the nomination for another term. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Michael Guest, R-Miss., has been defending his record after being forced into a runoff for the nomination for another term. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted June 27, 2022 at 7:00am

In Mississippi, GOP Reps. Michael Guest and Steven M. Palazzo were on June 7 forced into primary runoffs, and their colleagues in Washington have been working to shore up support for both incumbents. 

In the days after the primary, the Southern States PAC, the leadership PAC of Mississippi GOP Rep. Trent Kelly, held a series of “emergency” fundraising receptions in their honor on Capitol Hill, according to an invitation obtained by CQ Roll Call. 

Guest, a former prosecutor who describes himself as a “conservative Christian leader,” finished almost 300 votes behind Navy veteran Michael Cassidy in the primary. Since then, Guest has benefited from a surge of support during the runoff and worked to clarify parts of his record that Cassidy had wielded against him. That includes his vote for an independent commission to investigate the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol and his votes for bills funding the federal government that Cassidy claimed raised questions about his opposition to abortion rights. 

[Crunch time for multiple incumbents as 7 states hold elections]

He issued an ad attacking Cassidy as a “carpetbagger” who was “grounded and put under investigation” by the Navy. Cassidy, a pilot, has said the Navy suspended his flight privileges during investigations related to his political activity as a reservist. Guest’s campaign also launched a website raising questions about Cassidy’s conservative credentials and alleging that Cassidy wants to spend taxpayer money like a “socialist liberal” for a social spending proposal that Cassidy proposed during his campaign but has since walked back

The Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, also stepped in on Guest’s behalf, spending almost $450,000 attacking Cassidy and airing an ad that calls him a “lying RINO” who is hiding his “socialist agenda.” 

Cassidy, in turn, released an ad attacking Guest for voting with President Joe Biden to send aid money to Ukraine. He is also calling Guest a creature of the D.C. “swamp” for the donations his campaign has received from corporate PACs since the primary and claims without evidence on his Facebook page that Guest is working with state Democratic and Republican leaders to “illegally rig” the runoff. 

Guest’s campaign reported receiving nearly $367,000 in contributions during the runoff period. Cassidy reported $45,000, including $5,000 he gave to his campaign. Guest was also the only candidate to receive outside support during the runoff, with a PAC called the Mississippi Victory Fund spending $80,000 opposing Cassidy and a group called the Magnolia MAGA PAC spending $15,000 to support Guest, in addition to the money from the CLF. 

Palazzo was forced into his runoff against Jackson County Sheriff Mike Ezell after a crowded primary that centered on critiques of alleged ethical lapses and “no-show” representation in Washington. He has responded by stepping up appearances in his district, pointing to his record of inviting constituents to telephone town halls and agreeing to a Friday night debate, which will be the first time he has debated an opponent since he was elected 12 years ago. He also attacked Ezell during an interview with talk radio host Paul Gallo as someone with “no track record” to prove his conservative credentials. Palazzo argued that his experience and seniority in Washington is an asset to his constituents. Ezell responded in a tweet that he has a 42-year record of battling “corruption and government wrong-doing” as a law enforcement officer. 

Palazzo finished first in the five-way primary with 32 percent of the vote, short of the 50 percent required for an outright win, with 25 percent going to Ezell. The other candidates on the ballot have since endorsed Ezell. Palazzo has reported $337,000 in contributions since the primary, compared with $171,000 for Ezell. 

Palazzo has faced ethical scrutiny for allegedly spending campaign money on personal expenses, asking official staff to perform personal and campaign-related tasks and misusing his position to boost his brother’s Navy career.

The allegations against Palazzo surfaced after a 2019 primary challenger noticed irregularities in his campaign finance reports and hired a private investigator, who turned his findings over to the Campaign Legal Center. The nonprofit watchdog group filed a complaint with the Office of Congressional Ethics, Mississippi Today reported. The OCE detailed its findings in a report released in 2021 and handed the matter to the House Ethics Committee, which has said it is looking into the allegations.