SOUTHAVEN, Miss. The 1st Congressional District, the northernmost in the most culturally Southern state, has given the nation William Faulkner and Elvis Presley, and next Tuesday will have a special congressional election that will test the Republican hope that Barack Obama and his former pastor can be the basis of a Republican strategy to nationalize congressional races to the disadvantage of Democrats. A Senate seat also could be affected by the cascading consequences of Republican Sen. Trent Lott's December resignation.
Republican Gov. Haley Barbour replaced him with 1st District Rep. Roger Wicker, who this November will be on the ballot seeking election to the remainder of Lott's term. Wicker's opponent is former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, who has won two statewide elections.
The winner of the Republican nomination to fill Wicker's House seat is Greg Davis, mayor of this town, which is on the far west side of the district, just down Interstate 55 from Memphis. This location is read on a problem. His Democratic opponent, Travis Childers, a chancery clerk and businessman, is from the district's east side, which is less affluent. In seven elections, Wicker's smallest majority was 63 percent. In 2004, George W. Bush carried the district with 62 percent.
The April 1 primary runoff determined that Davis and Childers will be on the November ballot. But in the April 22 nonpartisan special election to settle who will serve the remaining months of Wicker's term, Childers fell just 410 votes short of 50 percent, which would have given him the seat. Davis received 46 percent.
At the peak of the furor about the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama's Web site endorsed Childers. Davis promptly produced an ad featuring Wright in full throat. The ad said:
"When Obama's pastor cursed America, blaming us for 9/11, Childers said nothing. When Obama ridiculed rural folks for clinging to guns and religion, Childers said nothing. Travis Childers. He took Obama's endorsement over our conservative values."
Childers, who is pro-life and pro-gun, told a Memphis television interviewer that "Senator Obama has not endorsed my candidacy. I've not been in contact with his campaign nor has he been in contact with mine." The last two assertions are, Childers insisted in a telephone conversation on Monday, true. But the television interviewer asked him, "Would you accept Obama's endorsement?"
Childers: "Let me tell you what sort of endorsements we're looking for and that we've had. We've had the endorsement of working people of north Mississippi, working families."
Childers says he does not fear the arrival, next Monday, of Vice President Dick Cheney here in DeSoto County, where President Bush enjoys 67 percent job approval. As evidence that nationalizing the election is a barren strategy, Childers cites last Saturday's special congressional election in Louisiana, where the Democrat ended the Republican Party's 33-year hold on the 6th District, in spite of the Republican candidate's charge that his opponent would be allied with Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. But because national Democrats can be problems for Southern Democrats, Childers wants to change the subject, making this an election not about party but about geography: Should the district be represented by someone based, as Davis is, in the Memphis metropolitan area?
If Childers wins on Tuesday, Davis will have another crack at him in November, when the top of the Democratic ticket, whoever it is, might be a heavy weight in Childers' saddle. But Davis had better win now because Mississippians in this district know how to split their tickets. For a House record 53 years from November 1941 to January 1995, while the South was changing from solidly Democratic to solidly Republican, Mississippi's 1st District was represented by Democrat Jamie Whitten.
In 1928, when some Southern Democrats balked at voting for their party's presidential nominee, Al Smith, a Catholic, incensed party loyalists popularized the saying, "I'd vote for a yellow dog if he ran on the Democratic ticket." There are few white "yellow dog" Democrats left in the South, but many unshakable Democrats: 36 percent of Mississippians are African-American, the highest percentage of any state.
Mississippi has the largest number of African-American elected officials, including 47 of 174 state legislators. If Obama becomes the Democratic nominee, stimulating African-American turnout, Musgrove's Senate candidacy could benefit, leading the national Democratic Party to open its wallet for him.So, a Childers win on Tuesday would be a scary harbinger, and not only for House Republicans. Senate Republicans might have an unanticipated worry in an unlikely state.
George Will's e-mail address is [email protected]. Washington Post Writers Group