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An Alarm Bell Goes Off For GOP in Mississippi

By Reid Wilson

In yet another alarming sign for the GOP's prospect's this fall, last night Democrats came within an inch of stealing one of the most Republican districts in the Deep South. In the special election to replace now-Senator Roger Wicker in Mississippi's 1st Congressional District, Democrat Travis Childers fell just 400 votes short of the 50% plus one mark, which would have avoided a run-off and won the seat outright.

Still, Democrats are ecstatic that their candidate won 2,000 more votes overall than the Republican candidate, Southaven Mayor Greg Davis. With 100% of precincts reporting, Childers won 49.4% to Davis' 46.3%. Furthermore, when Childers' vote total is combined with the votes from the other Democrat on the ballot yesterday, Steve Holland, Democratic candidates garnered 50.6%.

That's no small feat in a district that should have been should have been an easy save for the GOP; Wicker won his first election in 1994 with 63% of the vote and only dipped below the two-thirds mark in the 2006 election, when he won 66%. President Bush won the area, based in the northwest quadrant of the state, with 62% in 2004, a twenty-five point margin.

"Mississippi's First Congressional District is ruby red, and the fact that Travis Childers won 2,000 more votes and two-thirds of the district's counties is a major problem for Republicans now and heading into November," Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokeswoman Kyra Jennings told Real Clear Politics.

Republicans blamed Davis' poor showing on a bitter GOP primary. Davis beat his Republican challenger, Glenn McCullough, the former mayor of Tupelo, by just 500 votes out of 32,000 cast, while Childers bested Holland by 14 points. On his website, Holland posted an open letter offering unqualified support for Childers, while McCullough, in a statement, urged Republicans to unite behind GOP candidates. A spokesman later said the statement was "absolutely not" an endorsement of Davis, the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal reported.

Davis is from DeSoto County, in the northeast corner of the district, while Childers' Prentiss County is next door to the voter-rich, Tupelo-based Lee County, which both McCullough and Wicker call home. Without McCullough's assistance, Davis lost Lee County by a 58% to 37% margin. In 2006, Wicker won the county with a fraction over 69% of the vote, better than he performed in the district as a whole. Davis outperformed Wicker in DeSoto County by only four points.

Republicans remain optimistic that the rift can be healed in time for the May 13 runoff, and say the process has already begun. After trailing Childers by almost 4,000 votes in the primary, the margin tonight was cut to just over 2,000. "Greg Davis has dramatically closed the vote differential despite coming off a divisive Republican primary," NRCC spokesman Ken Spain said. "We are confident that we will retain this seat."

For the second straight election, though, Democratic voters outnumbered Republicans at the polls. In the primary runoff, which occured April 1, just over 36,000 Democrats cast ballots for either Childers or Holland, while slightly better than 33,000 Republicans voted for Davis or McCullough. Last night, 33,920 voters chose one of the two Democrats, while 31,848 picked a Republican.

Both parties have already put significant resources into the district, and given the tightness of the race, both are likely to invest more over the next three weeks. The cash-strapped National Republican Congressional Committee has thrown about $294,000 into efforts against Childers, while the DCCC has spent $141,000 slamming Davis. The NRCC's first expenditure in the race came after Childers released a poll for his campaign showing him up by a single point; Republicans shelled out $12,000 for a poll of their own, after which the committee dumped the remainder of the money into advertisements targeting Childers.

For Republicans, the spending in Mississippi, combined with advertisements the NRCC has bought in neighboring Louisiana, is a forboding sign. With just $7.17 million in the bank at the end of March, compared with more than $44 million on hand for the DCCC, the need to shell out money in what should be richly red territory spells more danger than the beleagured party can handle. Despite more than two dozen open seats the party has to defend next year, they have argued that many of those seats are out of Democratic reach. If Wicker's seat, and that of resigned Rep. Richard Baker in Louisiana, are in play, then Democrats are in good position to make plays for at least seventeen of those open seats, if not more. Include incumbents whose districts should only marginally favor Republicans and that number of in danger seats could skyrocket.

In total, the GOP's failure to easily capture a once-safe seat in Mississippi should cost every House Republican strategist at least a few hours' sleep. Democrats are making strong plays for two Republican-held seats in the next three weeks -- for Baker's Louisiana district on May 3 and for Wicker's Mississippi seat on May 13 -- and if they win either, the mood of an already dour Republican caucus will sink still lower. Given recent polls and news from Louisiana, where Democrat Don Cazayoux appears to be in strong position against Republican Woody Jenkins, and given last night's results, the GOP faces the increasingly real prospect of losing both seats.

Republicans brushed off a special election loss last month in Illinois' 14th Congressional district as an isolated event, but if the party suffers two more losses next month in Republican held districts in the South, it would be a further indication the GOP is headed for another rough election this fall.

Reid Wilson is an associate editor and writer for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at reid@realclearpolitics.com

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