JACKSON — Party loyalty is being tested in one of Mississippi’s U.S. House districts as a former Democratic congressman runs in a Republican primary.
Gene Taylor says he never asked constituents their political affiliation, and he hopes they’ll accept him with a new label. Republican Steven Palazzo, who unseated Taylor in the 2010 general election, notes it took his opponent 25 years to jump into a GOP primary.
Taylor entered the race Feb. 28, and on a split vote several days later, the state Republican executive committee decided to list him on the June 3 primary ballot, despite some members’ concerns about his past as a Democrat.
Taylor started his career on the Bay St. Louis city council in the early 1980s.
“When I first ran for city council, everyone ran as a Democrat. When that race was over, the race was over,” Taylor said Feb. 28. “Even my first term in the state Senate, the Democratic nominee was — it was just known you were going to win the race. And so, the state has changed quite a bit since then. This is just reflective of the voter identification in south Mississippi and the state of Mississippi and the huge shift that there has been.”
Palazzo’s campaign manager, Hunter Lipscomb, said it’s no surprise that some Republicans are “alarmed by the idea of Taylor’s overnight conversion.”
“They have every right to question his sudden switch of parties as a purely political stunt designed only help him return to Washington,” Lipscomb said.
In several other states, the partisan balance of state legislatures changed enough after 2010 to give Republicans — or, in fewer cases, Democrats — the newfound power to draw congressional lines favoring their party.
In Mississippi, however, the four congressional districts have not changed substantially in the past decade. The state currently has three Republicans and one Democrat in the U.S. House — a partisan balance that has fluctuated over the years as the state has moved from mostly Democratic to mostly Republican in federal races.
The big change for Mississippi came after the 2000 Census, when the state lost one of its five U.S. House seats because of slow population growth. Legislators in 2001 couldn’t agree on a congressional redistricting plan, so one was drawn by the federal courts in 2002. A panel of federal judges updated the congressional districts again in late 2011.
In 2002, Mississippi kept a majority-black district in the western part of the state; that district was expanded but remained a solid win for the black Democratic incumbent, Bennie Thompson, who’s still in office.
The state’s two congressmen with the least seniority in 2002 — Republican Chip Pickering and Democrat Ronnie Shows — were drawn into a Republican-friendly House district in the central part of the state, and Pickering won. The seat remained in Republican hands when Gregg Harper was elected in 2006 to succeed Pickering.
In north Mississippi in 2002, Republican Roger Wicker was the incumbent House member; the judges expanded his district and Wicker was re-elected. After Wicker moved to the Senate, conservative Democrat Travis Childers won the seat in mid-2008 but was unseated by Republican Alan Nunnelee in 2010.
In south Mississippi, Taylor was the incumbent in 2002. The judges expanded his district northward, and he was re-elected. Taylor was unseated in 2010 when Palazzo ran a campaign similar to Nunnelee’s, portraying the Democratic incumbent as beholden to Nancy Pelosi of California, who was then speaker of the House.