HATTIESBURG — Gene Taylor has run for Congress 13 times before now, but never before as a Republican.
Not that the 60-year-old seems much different. As he campaigns to reclaim his 4th District seat from Steven Palazzo in Tuesday’s Republican primary, Taylor is still running the same homespun campaign that won him 22 years in the House as a Democrat.
Unclear, though, is his appeal to GOP primary electors who have a two-term Republican incumbent in the 44-year-old Palazzo.
Their rematch headlines six Mississippi U.S. House primaries.
There’s some chance the 4th District race could go to a runoff. Besides Biloxi’s Palazzo and Bay St. Louis’ Taylor, three other candidates seek the seat — 48-year-old Tom Carter of Carriere, 24-year-old Tavish Kelly of Picayune, and 73-year-old Ron Vincent of Hattiesburg. Vincent lost to Palazzo in the 2012 primary and Carter put $200,000 of his own money into his campaign.
Palazzo, working a breakfast crowd Thursday at the Lake Serene Grocery in the Hattiesburg area, said people want the sort of tough opposition to President Barack Obama that he offers.
“They’re saying ‘Keep fighting,'” he said.
One supporter is Andy Boyd of Lamar County. He distrusts Taylor’s party switch and backs Palazzo because of concerns over the national debt.
“I sit down and balance our checkbook and when the federal government can’t do the same thing, we have a problem,” Boyd said.
Palazzo beat Taylor by about 10,000 votes out of the roughly 200,000 cast in 2010. Mississippi primary electorates are traditionally much smaller. Palazzo, counting on that group to reject Taylor, has outraised his challenger $678,000 to $251,000.
“People aren’t being fooled,” Palazzo said. “You can’t be a lifelong Democrat and wake up the day of the qualifying deadline and say ‘I’m a Republican.'”
Taylor, though, says people thank him for running.
“I think people have realized they want a congressman that’s accessible to them, that they can talk to face-to-face,” Taylor said.
Hattiesburg contractor Charlie Finnegan said he tried for years to get Taylor, who was among the most conservative Democrats in Congress, to become a Republican. Finnegan says Taylor’s ability to work with others would help Congress overcome party differences.
When Palazzo unseated Taylor, his margin of victory came from support in three inland counties, Pearl River, Lamar, and Jones. Taylor says he’s focusing more attention away from the coast this time around.
Taylor has hammered Palazzo repeatedly for his 2012 vote to approve the Biggert-Waters flood insurance law, under which the Federal Emergency Management Agency proposed expensive rate increases.
“He voted to raise peoples’ flood insurance rates by unlimited amounts,” Taylor said.
Palazzo said “no one” foresaw how FEMA would administer the proposed changes. “Congress’ intent was for them to do an affordability study,” he said.
Palazzo voted in March with most other members to defang that law, which he says is his top achievement.
Taylor also says Palazzo isn’t doing enough to protect the district’s military bases, and criticizes him for balking at supporting money to pay flood insurance claims following 2012’s Superstorm Sandy. Taylor says the Sandy vote will hurt Palazzo’s ability to seek hurricane aid for the Mississippi coast in the future. Palazzo disputes that, though, saying even as one of the House’s more conservative members, “I can still get things done.”
There are five other House primaries set Tuesday.
In the 4th District Democratic primary, Trish Causey of Ocean Springs faces 2012 Democratic nominee Matt Moore of Gulfport.
In the 3rd District Republican primary, three-term incumbent Gregg Harper of Pearl faces Hardy Caraway of Quitman. Three contenders — teacher Jim Liljeberg of Bay Springs, attorney Doug Magee of Mendenhall and former Republican candidate Dennis Quinn of Magnolia — seek the Democratic nomination in the 3rd District.
In the 2nd District, Damien Fairconetue of Clinton is challenging nine-term incumbent Bennie Thompson of Bolton in the Democratic primary. There’s no Republican primary.
In the 1st District, Ron Dickey of Horn Lake and Rex Weathers of Burnsville seek the Democratic nomination to run against incumbent Republican Alan Nunnelee of Tupelo, who faces no opponents in the primary.
Winners will advance to face minor party candidates and independents in the fall general election.
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