State Sen. Alan Nunnelee formally launched his campaign for Congress in Mississippi's First Congressional District this week. The Tupelo Republican plans to challenge incumbent Democrat Travis Childers this November. Republicans are targeting this district as one of the top Democrat held seats ripe for turnover.

Nunnelee will first need to secure the GOP nomination and could face Fox News Contributor Angela McGlowan of Oxford and former Eupora mayor Henry Ross on the June 1 Republican Primary ballot. The qualifying deadline is March 1.

Nunnelee has already secured the support of some GOP heavy hitters. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee endorsed him last year, and Governor Haley Barbour and Lt. Governor Phil Bryant each contributed $1000 to his campaign. The National Republican Congressional Committee named Nunnelee one of thirteen candidates in open or challenger races nationwide to reach "Contender" status in its Young Guns program.

Last week, a Nunnelee fundraiser in Memphis featured Karl Rove - "The Architect" of President George W. Bush's campaigns - the day after the historic Republican victory in the Massachusetts U.S. Senate race.

I asked Rove what Massachusetts symbolized for Republicans. "The message from Massachusetts is anti-politics as usual, which we also saw in New Jersey where Chris Christie ran as a reformer. There was also an element of antiestablishment," Rove said. He said the establishment's inevitability narrative of a Democrat holding the "Kennedy seat" was rebuked by Scott Brown's emphasis on campaigning for "the people's seat."

"Washington has over the past year shown unresponsiveness to the American people," Rove continued. "One of the messages out of Massachusetts is it's one thing to oppose policies. Scott Brown talked about what he is for. You can't just run against Pelosi, Reid, Obama. You have to say 'Here's what I would do.' That's what Bob McDonnell did in Virginia to win there."

Rove likes Nunnelee's chances. "I like Alan Nunnelee," he said. "He has a record of being an accomplished legislator. He has vision on the issues. And he is a hard campaigner; he enjoys working a room and meeting people. And people respond to him well and like him."

Rove noted, "He comes from the right part of the district" and will attract votes from the eastern part of the district through his Tupelo base, cutting into Childers' rural appeal; while benefiting from the DeSoto County Republican block.

Rove said, "This race is a high profile opportunity for people in northeast Mississippi and north Mississippi to render judgment on Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid."

Childers made politically safe votes against Democratic health care and cap and trade legislation. But he has been reticent to announce his position until the very last minute, creating a perception he must wait until Democrats know they can proceed without his vote. Republicans argue Childers has to get Nancy Pelosi's permission before he can vote.

"It doesn't matter just what pieces of legislation you vote for or against," Rove said, "the Democrats sitting in Congress are letting liberals dominate the House and the committees, and they cannot participate in passing positive constructive reforms like tort reform, or allowing people to go across state lines to buy health insurance. They are being dominated by the liberals."

The GOP posting statewide victories in New Jersey and Massachusetts shows the mood of independents has changed since Childers won the 2008 special and general elections with 54 percent of the vote. Childers voted for President Barack Obama's stimulus package which was promised to hold unemployment below 8 percent. Nearly one year and $787 billion later, Mississippi unemployment is at 10.6 percent.

The Supreme Court's decision announcing unions and corporations have the right to spend money on independent political speech could affect this race. In 2008, labor unions like the Mississippi Alliance of State Employees, the Service Employees International Union, the Communication Workers of America, and the AFL-CIO invested resources in direct mail, phone banks, and volunteers to elect Childers who pledged to support the Employee Free Choice Act. Once elected, Childers reversed his position. Even if unions do not exact vengeance against Childers, they may not work as hard to turn out the vote.

That would make campaign fundraising even more important. Before the Rove fundraiser, Nunnelee announced his end of the year fundraising report would show a total of $420,000 raised in five months. While Childers has not released his fourth quarter report, the third quarter report listed him with $274,464 raised and $507,220 cash-on-hand; and Nunnelee raising $219,954 and $181,163 cash-on-hand.

Nunnelee will be seeking Republican dollars across Mississippi, and already has a fundraiser planned in Jones County hosted by State Auditor Stacey Pickering. Washington Democrats will be sending Childers contributions through PACs and direct contributions. But such nationalization of the race brings with it liabilities in this highly targeted seat, or so Nunnelee hopes.

Brian Perry of Jackson is a partner in a public affairs firm. Reach him at