FEB. 9, 2015 — The news that three-term Rep. Alan Nunnelee (R) tragically succumbed to a cancerous brain tumor on Friday at the age of 56 now means the northern Mississippi congressional district joins NY-11 in the 2015 special election category.
Under Mississippi law, Gov. Phil Bryant (R) has 60 days to schedule the succeeding vote, and the election date must be no sooner than 60 days from the time Bryant acts. It is conceivable that the special vote can be linked to the state’s regular 2015 elections, but that would mean waiting until August.
The seat should remain in Republican hands, but the last time this district went to special election (May, 2008) Democrat Travis Childers scored an upset victory. Then-Rep. Roger Wicker (R) had been appointed to the Senate replacing resigned Sen. Trent Lott (R), thus necessitating a special congressional election.
Childers who hails from northeast Mississippi, which is close to the district’s main population center of Tupelo, was able to topple Republican candidate Greg Davis, then mayor of Southaven, located in the Memphis suburbs on the Mississippi side of the metro region. Childers then won again in the 2008 regular election, beating Davis for a second time. In the Republican wave year of 2010, however, Nunnelee, a Tupelo-based veteran state legislator, posted a 55-41 percent win over the Democratic incumbent and had little trouble holding the seat in the succeeding two elections.
In respect for Rep. Nunnelee’s mourning period, little speculation as to who might become a candidate will immediately occur. Former Rep. Childers would have to be high on the Democratic list but, after a poor Senate run against Republican incumbent Thad Cochran last November (losing 38-60 percent, and spending less than $700,000), it is unclear how eager he would be to jump into another uphill political fight.
The New York state statutes don’t provide enough specifics about when special elections must be scheduled, so Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) has yet to act in regard to filling the vacant Staten Island-anchored congressional district.
With the Democrats already rated as heavy underdogs in the political battle to succeed resigned Rep. Michael Grimm (R) the governor is in no hurry to specify an election date, but he may not be able to delay indefinitely. When then-Rep. Eric Massa (D-NY-29) resigned his seat in early 2010, Cuomo was able to wait until the regular general election to schedule the special. Republicans took the governor to court to force a quicker vote, but Cuomo prevailed.
In this situation, when the seat would be vacant for virtually the entire term, observers are skeptical that Cuomo can successfully avoid scheduling the election for too long a period. With even the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokespeople admitting their party’s chances of winning the Staten Island-Brooklyn seat in a special election configuration are poor, it is conceivable that Cuomo will likely postpone action until he is forced to hold the election.
Local Democrats, however, are moving forward with choosing a nominee. In New York, the local county political parties have power to nominate their own special election candidates without having a primary election. Republicans have already selected Richmond County District Attorney Dan Donovan, who must now wait for the Democrats to act.
The Staten Island and Brooklyn Democratic leadership have scheduled this Wednesday, Feb. 11, as the day they will interview prospective candidates. The party has requested that several people appear before the committee panel, including former Rep. Mike McMahon (D), who held the seat for one term. McMahon won the then-13th District in 2008 after an extra-marital scandal toppled Rep. Vito Fossella (R). Two years later, McMahon fell to Grimm. Now, the latter’s federal tax evasion guilty plea caused this latest Republican resignation.
McMahon had been mentioned as a possible candidate during the last two elections, but never took any action to run. Early in the post-Grimm resignation period his name initially surfaced, but then he again retreated to the background. The Democrats’ reported first choice for the race, Assemblyman Michael Cusick (D-Staten Island), has decided not to run largely because polling data suggested he was already a full 20 points behind Donovan.
Others expected to appear before the Democratic leaders are New York City Councilman Vincent Gentile and Assemblyman William Colton, both of Brooklyn. Staten Island represents two-thirds of the district, and Democrats have never fared well with a Brooklyn candidate. But, it appears they are again headed in that direction after losing Cusick.
Republicans are likely to win this seat whenever the special election is finally scheduled, but Democrats are promising a stronger fight in the regular 2016 election when they believe a presidential turnout model will help their future nominee.