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GOP Stunned By Loss in Mississippi

By Reid Wilson

In a major blow to national Republicans, a Mississippi congressional seat that once voted for President Bush by a twenty-five point margin elected a Democrat on Tuesday. Prentiss County Chancery Clerk Travis Childers beat out Republican candidate Greg Davis, the mayor of Southaven, by a 54%-46% margin, a spread that several Republican strategists on Capitol Hill characterized as a startling wake-up call for a party in dire straits.

Voters cast ballots for the fourth time in three months for the seat, vacated when Republican Roger Wicker was appointed to fill the remainder of Senator Trent Lott's term. After winning the primary and the runoff election, Childers came within 410 votes of winning the first round of the special election against Davis on April 22, beating the Republican by a 49%-46% margin.

Last night, Childers, a conservative Democrat, again outperformed Davis in many rural counties. Childers did better than in April in eighteen out of twenty four counties, while he underperformed in just two counties. Childers held steady in three of the remaining counties, while Winston County produced just ten votes. Most importantly, Childers held firm in Lee County, the district's largest and home to Tupelo, winning 58% of the vote, while improving his showing in DeSoto County, Davis's home field. Childers won 25% of the vote in DeSoto County, better than his anemic 17% showing in April.

The results came despite national Republican efforts aimed at winning the seat. Senators Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker, former Senator Trent Lott and Governor Haley Barbour campaigned hard for Davis. On Monday, perhaps as an unfortunate measure of how Republican the district really is, Vice President Dick Cheney held a rally for Davis. Closing the gap in DeSoto County, said Childers pollster John Anzalone, was crucial. "All we were looking to do was to cut the margins there," he said.

The loss has already shaken establishment Republicans in Washington. After losing special elections in Illinois and Louisiana, the House GOP conference already expects a bad year for their party. But those two districts voted for President Bush by eleven and nineteen points, respectively, not by a whopping twenety five points. "People are going to want change," said a top aide to a leading House Republican. "The excuses, that [Davis] didn't have the resources or that he wasn't from the right part of the district, that's just not going to hold up."

In the earlier special elections, Republicans blamed their candidate -- businessman Jim Oberweis in Illinois and former state legislator Woody Jenkins in Louisiana -- for the party's loss. As polls showed Davis losing to Childers, national Republicans began to signal they would blame Davis for being from the wrong part of the district.

But instead of blaming Davis, National Republican Congressional Committee chairman Tom Cole issued a surprisingly blunt statement about his party's own chances, coming a week after a national poll showed Democrats leading Republicans by a wide 50%-32% margin on generic congessional ballot tests. "Tonight's election highlights two significant challenges Republicans must overcome this November," Cole said. "First, Republicans must be prepared to campaign against Democrat challengers who are running as conservatives, even as they try to join a liberal Democrat majority. Though the Democrats' task will be more difficult in a November election, the fact is they have pulled off two special election victories with this strategy, and it should be a concern to all Republicans."

"The political environment is such that voters remain pessimistic about the direction of the country and the Republican Party in general," Cole continued. "I encourage all Republican candidates, whether incumbents or challengers, to take stock of their campaigns and position themselves for challenging campaigns this fall by building the financial resources and grassroots networks that offer them the opportunity and ability to communicate, energize and turn out voters this election."

Still, losing heavily Republican seats in the Deep South is a big blow to the Washington GOP. "To lose two Southern seats in two weeks, I mean, oh my God," the leadership aide said. The aide told Real Clear Politics that something new is going to happen at the NRCC. "People look at Cole, and they say, 'What are you going to do to change?' And if he doesn't want to change, change is going to be forced on him."

A top adviser to a Republican incumbent who has a difficult race in November already says his boss is not looking to the NRCC for the same help he got in 2006. "This chairman badly underestimated how important it is to have top-flight staff," the adviser said, adding that some NRCC staffers are "toiling" under supervisors with less campaign experience. "We had been planning all along to operate without much help from them."

The leadership aide suggested that a former NRCc chairman, Virginia Rep. Tom Davis, could take on a larger role in the coming months. Davis, who is retiring after this session of Congress, ran the committee earlier this decade and currently serves as chairman of the NRCC executive committee. The adviser suggested, instead, that the wounded NRCC presents an opportunity for other members of the caucus to help out their fellow Republicans with political action committee donations, setting up future advancement for themselves.

While Republicans faced a renewed crisis of confidence Tuesday, Democrats celebrated what they said was another failed GOP angle of attack. "These are districts we have no business playing in," said Anzalone, who polled for Democratic winners in both Louisiana and Mississippi. "In ten days, you have two candidates who were attacked at high levels with [Barack] Obama and [the Rev. Jeremiah] Wright, and Nancy Pelosi and all that, and in neither place it worked." National Republicans ran advertisements slamming Childers for associating with Obama, forcing the conservative Democrat to respond with an advertisement asserting he had never met the likely Democratic presidential nominee.

Both parties spent heavily on the district. The NRCC spent at least $1.29 million on the seat, according to Federal Election Commission reports released yesterday, while the DCCC expended $1.84 million in the same race. Democrats point out that, as reported on Politics Nation earlier this week, Freedom's Watch, a group that backs Republican candidates, spent another approximately $500,000 on the seat. Adding insult to injury, Davis, the losing Republican, outspent Childers by a little less than a two-to-one margin. Through April 23, Davis had raised $876,000 and spent $803,000; Childers had raised just $485,000 and spent $419,000.

With more than $44.3 million in the bank after the end of March, Democrats can afford that kind of expenditure in a special election. But with only $7.2 million on hand, the NRCC will not be able to sustain that kind of spending in the future. After spending millions in the three losing special elections, the NRCC is likely to face seriously disappointing fundraising reports for the next several months.

As Childers heads to Washington in the next several days to take the oath of office, Republicans now find themselves at a 37-seat disadvantage in Congress. And with a difficult election coming in November, one in which they will likely find themselves financially and politically outgunned, national Republicans are already making plans for the future. No one, though, is likely to try to force leadership changes before November. "I don't imagine anyone running against Chairman Cole," the adviser to the endangered Republican said. "Because Who would want this job?"

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

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