Jackson County Sheriff Mike Ezell, who is running for Congress, talks to a supporter during a campaign press conference at the Great Southern Club in Gulfport, Miss., on Thursday, June 9, 2022. (Hannah Ruhoff/The Sun Herald via AP)

U.S. Rep. Steven Palazzo, representing Mississippi’s 4th District, became the first incumbent congressman to lose in a party primary in recent state history when he was defeated Tuesday by Jackson County Sheriff Mike Ezell in the Republican primary runoff.

Another incumbent congressman, Michael Guest of the 3rd District in central Mississippi, easily survived a runoff challenge from former Navy pilot Michael Cassidy in the Republican primary.

In the west Mississippi 2nd District runoff Tuesday, Brian Flowers defeated Ronald Eller and will run in the November election against incumbent Democrat Bennie Thompson, the state’s only African American U.S. House member. 

Incumbents Guest and Palazzo were forced to runoff elections because neither garnered a majority vote in the first primary earlier this month.

Guest, a former district attorney representing Madison and Rankin counties in suburban Jackson, actually trailed Cassidy, a campaign novice, in the first primary vote.

But in the runoff, the Republican establishment and the Guest campaign, which apparently had underestimated Cassidy, waged an intensive campaign, easily outdistancing Cassidy. Late Tuesday with results still coming in, Guest had a commanding 67% to 33% lead over Cassidy.

Palazzo did not have similar success in the runoff. In late results, Ezell had a 54% to 46% lead over the incumbent.

The Associated Press called both races late Tuesday.

Ezell in his campaign had hit Palazzo on a long-running complaint the 12-year incumbent has faced: That he is inaccessible to constituents and often absent from the district or in Congress. Palazzo also has been under a House ethics investigation over allegations he used campaign and congressional funds for personal expenses.

In 2010 Palazzo was a member of the state House representing Harrison County when he was a surprise candidate against incumbent Democratic Congressman Gene Taylor. Most gave Palazzo little chance of upending the long-time incubent Taylor, viewed as a fixture in Gulf Coast politics.

But Palazzo took advantage of the historic Republican wave in 2010 to upset Taylor.

Palazzo’s loss appears to be the first time an incumbent U.S. House member has lost a party primary election in Mississippi since 1962. In that year incumbent Jamie Whitten defeated fellow incumbent Frank Smith in the Democratic primary after they were placed in the same district after Mississippi lost a House seat.

In the 3rd District, Cassidy ran as a Donald Trump conservative, but Guest attacked his conservative principals in late campaign ads. Cassidy, a Lauderdale County resident, had touted on his campaign web page various social spending programs, such as a universal health care proposal. Cassidy later renounced those programs, but not before giving Guest campaign fodder.

Cassidy attacked Guest as a “Republican in name only” and for voting for the proposed Jan. 6 Commission to investigate the attacks on the U.S. Capitol. Trump opposed the commission.

In the November general election, Guest will face Democrat Shuwaski Young. Ezell will face Democrat Johnny DuPree and Libertarian Alden Johnson.

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Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.

Geoff Pender serves as senior political reporter, working closely with Mississippi Today leadership on editorial strategy and investigations. Pender brings 30 years of political and government reporting experience to Mississippi Today. He was political and investigative editor at the Clarion Ledger, where he also penned a popular political column. He previously served as an investigative reporter and political editor at the Sun Herald, where he was a member of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team for Hurricane Katrina coverage. Originally from Florence, Mississippi, Pender is a journalism graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi and has received numerous awards throughout his career for reporting, columns and freedom of information efforts.