SOUTHAVEN, Miss. (AP) - A battle to shape the Republican membership of Mississippi’s House of Representatives is playing out door to door in DeSoto County.
The Memphis suburb will have seven House seats partially or entirely within its bounds after the next election, including two new seats added in redistricting. All the seats are likely to send Republicans to Jackson, and six feature contested GOP primaries on Aug. 4. Four incumbents are being challenged by candidates who say they’re more conservative.
A conservative group called Empower Mississippi is pumping money into all six races, motivated by what it sees as failures by incumbents to sufficiently support charter schools and educational vouchers. Challengers say the incumbents have been too cozy with retiring school Superintendent Milton Kuykendall. Incumbents say their constituents oppose charter schools and they were only supporting a school system they view as DeSoto County’s most important asset.
“The people up here really don’t like charter schools,” said Wanda Jennings, the Southaven representative whom other incumbents look to as the leader of the county’s House delegation.
While Democrats hope to gain about 10 seats and take back the House in November, some Republicans are hoping for a wider majority in the lower chamber. The intramural battles indicate that some of the most important elections this year in Mississippi could come in the GOP primary.
House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, is endorsing incumbents, including at a June meeting of the DeSoto County Conservative Coalition where he was briefly heckled.
“We voted with the speaker 98 percent of the time and they think we’re bad people,” said one-term incumbent Pat Nelson of Southaven.
But his challenger, schoolteacher Ashley Henley, said Gunn’s endorsement is just more proof of how Nelson has lost touch with his district.
“People endorse each other,” she said. “It’s how they play this game.”
Jennings was grilled at the same conservative coalition meeting, and eventually fainted, though supporters say Jennings was overcome by heat. She doesn’t want to talk about the meeting. But having had little opposition since winning a special election in 1997, she’s not only pulled old signs out of storage, but ordered new ones.
“I’m out working, working every day,” she said.
Challengers are also taking on Forrest Hamilton of Olive Branch and Gene Alday of Walls.
The incumbents are making an issue of the $41,850 that Empower has put into the six county races so far, especially because the group has plenty more cash left. Empower has raised $428,000 since its creation a year ago and had $337,000 on hand as of June 10. Of that money $360,000 came from the American Federation for Children, a Washington, D.C., group that advocates for school choice, including charter schools and public subsidies for children to attend private schools. Another $30,000 came from Joel Bomgar, a software entrepreneur who himself is running for state House in Madison County.
“Our goal is to be sure these seats cannot be bought by big money out of Jackson or elsewhere,” Jennings said.
Empower Mississippi Executive Director Grant Callen said that after his group gave failing grades on education choice to Jennings, Hamilton and Nelson “it should come as no surprise that we are supporting challengers that are opposing some of the worst-rated incumbents.”
Dana Criswell, a FedEx pilot who blogs about gun issues, said he agrees with Empower’s position in favor of more school choice.
“I’ve had school choice simply because I make enough money to choose,” Criswell said. “I’ve chosen the schools that are best for my kids and I believe we owe that to everyone.”
Not all Empower-backed candidates support school choice, though. Robert Foster, running against Les Green for the District 28 open seat covering Hernando and Lewisburg, is against it.
“DeSoto County right now does not want charter schools, because we have a very strong school district,” Foster said.
There are other threads in the races. All the candidates interviewed by The Associated Press say they want to roll back the Common Core academic standards now in place in Mississippi’s public schools.
Alday apologized earlier this year after being quoted making disparaging comments about the black residents of Walls, where he was previously mayor. He said those remarks don’t seem to factor into his race.
“Up here, no one talks about it,” Alday said.
Jennings may be the top target. She cites a record of accomplishment, including cutting taxes on warehousing operations in DeSoto County, bringing two Army National Guard units to the county and getting the state to erect a sound barrier along Interstate 55 in part of Southaven.
Challenger Steve Hopkins, when he entered the race, wrote that he sought “a change that would send a true conservative to Jackson to represent the citizens. My opponent in the Republican primary has been in office since 1997 and has voted with the Democrats on numerous occasions.”
Criswell and others, though, are counting on anti-incumbent sentiment, like last year when Chris McDaniel swamped incumbent U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran 2-to-1 in DeSoto, even as Cochran won the Republican primary runoff statewide.
“I’d say my default vote is against the incumbent unless the incumbent can convince me they deserve to be there,” Criswell said.
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