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Another Embattled Incumbent Faces a GOP Primary Runoff
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Another Embattled Incumbent Faces a GOP Primary Runoff

GOP Rep. Michael Guest of Mississippi struggles to hold onto his seat amid attacks on his voting record ahead of Tuesday’s runoff.

After edging GOP Rep. Michael Guest in Mississippi’s 3rd District Republican primary earlier this month by fewer than 300 votes, Republican congressional candidate Michael Cassidy pivoted his campaign for the runoff ahead. 

The former Navy fighter pilot and first-time candidate quietly scrubbed his campaign website of a handful of economic policy proposals that he had originally argued would “incentivize family formation”—a $20,000 stipend to married couples to be paid back upon divorce, a maternity leave program with five years of government benefits, and a $250 monthly stipend to married families with children under age 10 and $500 to those with children ages 10-17 years old. He even walked back his previous support for “allowing all citizens to enroll in Medicare, regardless of age”—shorthand for Medicare for all.

Those proposals are now nowhere to be seen on his campaign platform. 

With just hours to go until today’s runoff election, the “American Dream” tab of Cassidy’s campaign site now includes the following disclaimer: “Based on helpful feedback from many conservatives in the 3rd District, I’ve improved my America Dream policies by focusing on lowering the tax burden for working families with children.” In place of his since-deleted policy prescriptions are new proposals aimed at encouraging private businesses to offer maternity leave and expanding the child tax deduction from $3,600 to $10,000 for families not already receiving assistance. 

Cassidy has spent his entire campaign claiming that he is running to the right of Guest, whom he frequently calls a “RINO”—short for “Republican in name only.” That contention is now being put to the test in interviews, where he struggles to explain his campaign’s flip-flop on various campaign issues. He becomes particularly defensive when asked about his prior policy commitments to marital stipends and paid maternity leave—policy ideas he says he initially championed because of his desire to confront America’s declining birth rate and “skyrocketing” divorce rate.

“This was something that you know, wasn’t a, this was never part—even though yes, it’s on the website—until Election Day, it was never something that was part of the campaign,” Cassidy, who carried 47.5 percent of the vote to Guest’s 46.9 in the three-candidate June 8 primary, said in an interview with The Dispatch on Friday. (Neither Cassidy nor Guest won the 50 percent vote threshold required to win the primary outright.)

Reports of Cassidy’s 11th-hour platform switch came as welcome campaign fodder for Guest, a two-term incumbent who is now struggling to hold onto his seat more than one year after he joined 34 of his House Republican colleagues in supporting the original independent January 6 Commission. The proposal failed to secure enough support from Republican senators to clear the filibuster. But it still has managed to embattle quite a few Republican incumbents like Guest who are now being accused of having voted for the current House select committee investigating the events of January 6, whose only Republican members are Reps. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois.

Tuesday’s runoff pits two factions of the Republican Party against each other in one of the reddest states in the country, with Guest defending the Reagan-era GOP aimed at promoting fiscal restraint, and Cassidy—albeit in a somewhat half-hearted manner—championing an emerging family-oriented economic populism aimed at curbing what he calls the “destruction of the American family.” 

Guest said he worries that Reagan-era Republicans are a dying breed, and points to Cassidy’s prior commitments to sweeping social net policies as a sign that the GOP is moving into dangerous territory. “They are positions that no Republican who was running for Congress would ever take and ever support, they’re more in line with Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez,” Guest told The Dispatch when asked about the stipend policies Cassidy removed from his campaign site. “Instead of defending his policies, once he’s been called out on them he’s scrubbed them from his website, and now has said that he doesn’t believe that.”

All told, Guest is no moderate, despite Cassidy’s best efforts to paint him as such. He voted to decertify the 2020 presidential election results in Arizona and Pennsylvania last year, boasts sterling credentials from numerous pro-life organizations, and defends his support for the bipartisan January 6 commission on the grounds that it would have avoided the “political witch hunt”—his characterization of the current House select committee investigating January 6. He is heading into today’s runoff with advertising support from the House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy-aligned Congressional Leadership Fund.

But he also knows that the runoff won’t be a cakewalk and acknowledges that Cassidy’s campaign tactics have succeeded in hurting his reelection prospects. “He’s done a very good job of confusing voters and making voters believe that I’ve supported something that I didn’t,” he said in an interview. “Every day, I hear from people as we’re on the campaign trail about why did I vote with Nancy Pelosi for the ‘Pelosi Select Committee’ chaired by Congressman Bennie Thompson?’” 

Cassidy has also repeatedly railed against his opponent for voting to “fund Planned Parenthood” through his support for bipartisan omnibus bills to fund the government. 

Guest admits that he’s struggled to fend off those attacks, and in some ways faults voters for taking the bait. “It’s almost as if you are guilty ‘til proven innocent,” Guest said. “And instead of people doing their homework—going online, researching myself, researching my opponent—people took that at face value because they got a thing in the mail, or they got a robo-call or maybe they saw a TV ad, and they immediately believe that I was not the conservative member of Congress that I’ve always been.”

Meanwhile, Cassidy still struggles to answer basic questions about the “American Dream” section of his campaign website. Asked if he’d consider including policies that would incentivize paternity leave, for example, Cassidy demurred: “I’ll have to get back to you on that.” 

And pressed on which voters, lawmakers, or donors offered him the feedback that ultimately led to an overhaul of his “American Dream” policy platform, he didn’t give a clear answer. “People you know, that was a very hectic day, the day after the election. I know at least a couple of the volunteers on my staff,” Cassidy said. “If they had donated to my campaign, it wasn’t—it was a small donation. There wasn’t any like, I don’t really have—I don’t have any corporate PAC money. There’s no—even the people who, who’ve given me a decent amount of money as an individual or a couple, they’re not, they’re not influencing my—what I decide to run on.”

Cassidy prefers to keep the focus on his enthusiasm for other Republican policy proposals like enacting strict election integrity measures, banning puberty blockers for children under 18 years of age, and finishing the southern border wall. He’s also told voters that if elected, he will on his first day in office introduce articles of impeachment against President Joe Biden for his southern border policies and botched Afghanistan withdrawal. 

If he wins today’s primary, Cassidy also promises to be a thorn in the side of likely soon-to-be-speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy. “I would never vote for Kevin McCarthy for any leadership position in the Republican caucus,” Cassidy told The Dispatch.

Audrey is a former reporter for The Dispatch.