After Democrats narrowly won special elections for the historically Republican districts of former House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (Ill.) and former Rep. Richard Baker (La.) earlier this year, I spoke extensively to local GOP leaders and pundits about the results. Based on these interviews, my conclusion was that the Republican upsets in Republican turf had less to do with a national tide against the GOP and more to do with local circumstances: a hefty spending advantage of the Democratic congressional campaign arm over its Republican counterpart, controversial GOP nominees, and internecine Republican warfare that left the party’s nominee wounded going up against Democrats.
But today, no more excuses. With the Democratic capture last night of the 1st District seat in Mississippi held for the last fourteen years by Republican Roger Wicker (appointed to the U.S, Senate last year), it is very difficult to say that the “trifecta” of Democratic upsets in Republican districts does not portend a winning Democratic year in congressional races. With near- final returns in, Democrat Travis Childers rolled up about 53% of the vote against Republican nominee and Southaven Mayor Greg Davis. The Childers triumph was particularly striking in that it came in a district where Wicker had been regularly re-elected with between 63% and 79% of the vote and which George W. Bush carried with 62% of the vote last year.
In addition, this was a district where national Republicans went all-out to hold. Vice President Cheney came into the Magnolia State to stump for Davis and Republican Gov. Haley Barbour also weighed in with strong fund-raising assistance for his party’s standard-bearer in the 1st District. The cash-strapped National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) committed about $1.3 million to a media broadside against Childers — “triple the amount it spent in Louisiana [special election May 3],” according to the Washington Post. As it was in the losing effort against Democratic winner (and now Rep.) Don Cazayoux in Louisiana, the NRCC-funded TV spots tied Barack Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Childers, a Prentiss County clerk who has never held an office where he had to cast votes.
The failure of this strategy in a district with a conservative Republican history has to make national Republicans nervous about a tide that will sweep out its candidates in districts less simpatico. Should scandal-tarred Rep. Vito Fosella (R.-NY) resign, could national Republicans possibly think they have a better chance of retaining the last GOP-held seat in New York than they did in Mississippi’s 1st District? Do they believe that the current cash advantage of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee over the NRCC ($44.3 million to $7.2 million as of March 31st ) will change anytime soon? Or that the generic ballot surveys giving Democrats a ten-to-twenty percentage point edge nationwide over Republicans running for Congress will shift as well?
All told, it does not look good for Republican chances of recapturing the House — especially in a year when almost three times as many Republican-held districts are being vacated as those in Democratic hands.
Admittedly, there were circumstances that worked against Republican Davis that were strictly local. The evening before the balloting, Gov. Barbour told me “we had a very highly contested primary that was won by less than one percent of the vote. Greg Davis is a very good man but he’s from the wrong part of the district, where there are fewer people, and the Democrats nominated someone who’s more from the center of the district [which is more populous]. The Democrats chance here is based on regionalism. They are trying to say this race is geographic, it’s regional, because if they know it’s about issues and philosophy, they’ll get beat. It’s going to be close.”
Coupling Davis’ dilemma was the refusal of his primary opponent and fellow conservative, former Tupelo Mayor Glenn McCullough, to endorse him. This same refusal of defeated Republican nomination candidates to support the nominee hurt GOP chances in Illinois and Louisiana.
Democrat Childers was also clearly the right fit for the 1st District. Along with not having a voting record that could be attacked, he campaigned as strongly pro-lfie, pro-Second Amendment, and, as one Republican activist noted “with a touch of the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Appalachian Regional Commission [Wicker’s predecessor, The late Democratic Rep. and House Appropriations Committee Chairman] Jamie Whitten’s legacy of appropriating federal dollars is everywhere. But the Democrat has to be bad before they’ll consider a Republican which is why they went with Reagan and Bush and Haley Barbour and will again for Roger Wicker. The problem for Republicans is Childers isn’t slightly perceived as an out-of-touch liberal.” (Childers also shrugged off GOP attempts to tie him to Obama, saying he had never met the Democratic front-runner for President; as a new congressman, however, Childers now becomes an automatic super-delegate and will soon have to declare for either Obama or Hillary Clinton).
And the problem for national Republicans could well be there are more Democrats like Childers and more open districts.
(A warning for Childers: Democrats in Congress will not accept him and his philosophy. He will be an outcast from Mississippi).