2 GOP congressmen in Mississippi at risk of defeat in runoff

Published 11:30 am Sunday, June 26, 2022

Congressional primary runoffs with incumbents are rare in Mississippi. This year, two of the state’s Republican representatives are fighting to keep their jobs in runoffs against challengers from their own party.

U.S. Rep. Steven Palazzo is seeking a seventh term and was considered vulnerable after being accused in a 2021 congressional ethics report of abusing his office by misspending campaign funds.

U.S. Rep. Michael Guest is seeking a third term. He voted to create an independent commission to investigate the riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and was forced into a runoff amid criticism that he was disloyal to former President Donald Trump.

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Both Palazzo and Guest failed to cross the 50% threshold to win outright in their June 7 primaries. On Tuesday, Palazzo will go up against Mike Ezell, the sheriff of a coastal county, while Guest will face Michael Cassidy, a former Navy fighter pilot.

The Associated Press researched state records dating back to 1952 and found that no U.S. representative from Mississippi has been in a party primary runoff during those 70 years.

Mississippi’s other two congressmen, Democrat Bennie Thompson and Republican Trent Kelly, easily won their primaries this month.

Guest represents Mississippi’s 3rd Congressional District, which includes parts of Jackson and its suburbs, encompassing the area where Guest was district attorney before being elected to Congress. The district also has small towns, poultry processing plants and military installations, including one where Cassidy still trains pilots.

Guest received 47.5% to Cassidy’s 47% on June 7 in a race with three candidates. Guest and Cassidy campaigned separately last week in the small town of Magee, in a county where Guest fared slightly better than Cassidy in the first round of voting.

Guest calls his challenger a “carpetbagger” because Cassidy moved to Mississippi from the East Coast and only registered to vote here in 2021. Cassidy acknowledges the timing of his registration, saying he remained a voter in one state while being transferred to others.

Cassidy accuses Guest of betraying Trump by joining Democrats and 34 other Republicans in backing the creation of a bipartisan commission on the Jan. 6 attack.

Weeks after that proposal failed in the U.S. Senate, Guest was among 190 Republicans who opposed creating the House committee that has spent months investigating the insurrection and recently started televised hearings. He and Palazzo were among the House Republicans who objected to certifying election results from some states that went for Democrat Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential race.

Cassidy says in campaign speeches that Guest has done nothing to stop “the persecution of Jan. 6 political prisoners.” During a dinner at Jose’s Restaurant & Grill in Magee, Cassidy criticized the commission Guest voted to support.

“It said … in the bill that everybody that was up there that day was a domestic terrorist,” Cassidy said.

Guest rejects any notion that he has been disloyal to Trump.

“They don’t want to talk about our 95% voting record with Donald Trump that we were co-chairs of his Mississippi reelection campaign, that we voted against impeachment twice and actually spoke on the floor in opposition to that,” Guest told a lunch crowd the next day a mile away at Zip’s Cafe.

The winner of the runoff between Guest and Cassidy will face Shuwaski Young in November. Young worked in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security during Barack Obama’s presidency.

Palazzo represents southeast Mississippi’s 4th Congressional District, which includes the cities of Biloxi and Hattiesburg. The district’s economy relies heavily on the military and shipbuilding.

Palazzo served in the Marine Corps and the Mississippi Army National Guard. He was in the state Legislature before unseating a longtime Democratic congressman in the tea party wave of 2010.

In 2021, a report by the Office of Congressional Ethics found “substantial reason to believe” Palazzo abused his office by misspending campaign funds, doing favors for his brother and enlisting staff for political and personal errands. His then-spokesperson, Colleen Kennedy, said the investigation was based on politically motivated “false allegations.”

In the primary, Palazzo received 31.5% of the vote to Ezell’s 25% in a race with seven candidates.

Ezell has said Palazzo is ineffective in representing south Mississippi, and he has criticized Palazzo for proxy voting — the practice of not showing up in person to cast votes in the House but allowing another member to cast a vote in his place.

In November, the winner of the runoff between Palazzo and Ezell will face Democrat Johnny L. DuPree, a former Hattiesburg mayor who was the 2011 Democratic nominee for governor, and Libertarian Alden Patrick Johnson.