TUPELO – Over a year-and-half before congressional elections in fall 2018, a Democratic candidate has mounted a campaign to challenge Mississippi’s 1st District incumbent, Republican Trent Kelly.
Randy Wadkins, 52, is a professor of chemistry and a cancer drug researcher at the University of Mississippi, where he has taught approximately 14 years.
An Iuka native with roots going back four generations in Tishomingo County, Wadkins deems his entry into the political arena the result of frustration with President Donald Trump’s budgeting priorities and comments running counter to prevailing scientific consensus.
Wadkins particularly highlights for objection statements by Trump on climate change and vaccines as well as the president’s proposed budget released earlier this year.
“A president’s budget is a glimpse into what a president wants to see during his term,” Wadkins said during a conversation by phone with the Daily Journal. “The president’s budget is going to kill a whole lot of research and development at public and state schools.”
Even with a long start to his campaign, the Democratic challenger faces tough odds. Kelly, a former district attorney, first took the 1st District seat during a 2015 special election and then won a full term in 2016, easily beating three challengers, including a Democrat, with nearly 70 percent of the vote.
In that same election, Trump captured about 65 percent of ballots cast in Mississippi’s 1st District.
Even so, Wadkins believes Trump voters may sour on the president’s White House record and on the policies pursued by the Republican congressional majority.
Indeed, Wadkins believes Trump will be tripped up by a failure to deliver on campaign promises of new working class jobs and affordable healthcare.
“He promised coal miners that they were going to get their jobs back,” Wadkins said. “The Kemper County facility just said ‘we’re not going to do coal/lignite.’ Scientists have been saying that for as long as that thing has been under development. That thing’s a boondoggle.”
Health care in particular is a significant policy concern for Wadkins. In 2015-16, he was a science and technology congressional fellow, analyzing healthcare policy for Memphis-area congressman Rep. Steve Cohen.
Wadkins criticizes Republican efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obamacare, though he says some ACA repairs are needed.
In particular, Wadkins echoes even a talking point Kelly often deploys – criticism that the law provides subsidies for low income earners while middle-class Americans are left on their own to deal with increasing premiums.
“The real losers were the middle class,” Wadkins said. “That can be fixed by readjusting the subsidy levels. It doesn’t require throwing the whole thing out.”
Wadkins heavily criticizes Kelly for voting in favor of a repeal and replacement legislation that passed the U.S. House of Representatives in May.
The Democratic hopeful is equally skeptical of a Republican proposal currently under consideration in the U.S. Senate. He believes proposed reductions in future Medicaid spending are harmful for Mississippians and will drive voters away from the GOP in 2018.
But even as he calls for legislative tweaking of Obamacare, Wadkins aligns himself with the wing of the Democratic Party that eventually wants to replace the ACA altogether.
Wadkins favors so-called “Medicare for all,” a single-payer healthcare system with universal coverage financed by public funds.
“The concept is not crazy,” Wadkins said. “The hard part is going to be financing, but it’s not going to be insurmountable.”
Even as he criticizes Trump and aligns himself with a healthcare policy touted by Sen. Bernie Sanders, Wadkins seeks to distance himself from national ideological camps and describes himself on his campaign website as a “pragmatic” Democratic.
Speaking to the Daily Journal, Wadkins said his focus is squarely local needs.
“My interests are in the interests and needs of the 1st Congressional District, not necessarily what the national party is concerned about,” Wadkins said.
Wadkins pledged that he would vote against any legislation he deemed harmful to the 1st District, regardless of which party control’s the speaker’s chair.
“I don’t care about toeing the national line,” Wadkins said.