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House GOP Shifts Into Panic Mode

By Reid Wilson

After losing two previously Republican-held seats in special elections earlier this year, House GOP aides worry their party is on the brink of an election year catastrophe, and as a key test looms on Tuesday, the party is already pulling out all the stops. House Republicans, sources say, are using every resource possible in advance of next week's special election to fill Senator Roger Wicker's old House seat, in northern Mississippi.

The district should be no trouble to hold. President Bush carried the seat by twenty five points in 2004, and Wicker never had a problem holding on for re-election. But after Democrats picked up seats once held by former Reps. Denny Hastert, in Illinois, and Richard Baker, in Louisiana, and after the Democratic candidate in Mississippi narrowly missed avoiding a runoff election in the April 22 all-party first round, officials on Capitol Hill started to panic.

"The conference was shaken by the two losses," one House GOP leadership aide told Real Clear Politics. "We just couldn't get it done." The fallout has encouraged a brewing feud between House Majority Leader John Boehner and National Republican Congressional Committee chairman Tom Cole, two top Republicans who have spent much of the past year fighting. And while other Capitol Hill Republicans are almost unanimous in agreeing the trouble is not all Cole's fault, someone has to take the hit. "The two offices are positioning themselves to avoid blame or to lay blame," the aide said.

In an open letter published by Human Events, a conservative news service, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich became the most prominent Republican to speak publicly on his party's troubles. Calling the two losses a "sharp wake up call," Gingrich called for an emergency meeting of House Republicans to come up with a new action plan by the Memorial Day recess. "Without change we could face a catastrophic election this fall," Gingrich warned. "Without change the Republican Party in the House could revert to the permanent minority status it had from 1930 to 1994."

In hopes of avoiding another special election loss, which would almost certainly be seen as a harbinger of a disastrous November to come, the national party has spent heavily on bolstering Republican candidate Greg Davis, the mayor of Southaven, Mississippi, prior to Tuesday's election. The national party has spent more than $1 million on the seat, which includes about 150,000 pieces of mail and two television ads that are still on the air. Freedom's Watch, an independent organization that will aid Republican cnadidates this Fall, has also waded in with more than $500,000 in television advertising, mailings, phone calls and other activity. Local GOP officials, including Wicker, Governor Haley Barbour and Senator Thad Cochran, have been stumping with and for Davis in recent weeks.

Republicans are also calling in bigger guns: Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee has visited the district, and Vice President Dick Cheney will even make a rare election-eve appearance at a rally with Davis. That the district is one in which Cheney is not seen as a liability, though, speaks to its inherent conservatism and what should be Republicans' ease in carrying it.

"We need money and boots on the ground," Georgia Republican Rep. Lynn Westmoreland told Real Clear Politics. Westmoreland recently gave a presentation to fellow Republicans stress the importance of their involvement. "We need to do the best we can to make sure our people know how important this election is."

Democrats have spent more than $1.6 million of their own money on independent expenditures, running ads that bash Davis and bolster their candidate, Prentiss County Chancery Clerk Travis Childers. Davis has outraised and outspent Childers by a wide margin; the Republican had raised $876,000 through March 23, when the pre-runoff FEC reports were due, while Childers had pulled in $485,000.

But the situation remains grim for Republicans. Ahead of what could be a third straight special election loss, national Republican strategists have taken steps to stanch the bleeding. Boehner, in cooperation with Cole, has established a panel of twelve Republican members from across geographic and ideological lines to oversee operations at the NRCC.

All twelve members currently serve on the NRCC's executive committee. Some lead important divisions within that committee, including Virginia Rep. Tom Davis, who chairs the executive committee; Minnesota Rep. John Kline, who heads the management committee; and Michigan Rep. Candice Miller, who leads candidate recruitment efforts. Others on the new panel include Reps. Darrell Issa, of California, and Jeb Hensarling, of Texas; both have led big fundraising efforts for the committee, Issa during a March dinner featuring President Bush and Hensarling hosting a similar event next month.

The panel also includes leaders of the Young Guns program, an organization founded to focus on challenger candidates who could prove promising come November. Reps. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the chief deputy whip, and Kevin McCarthy, a freshman from California, lead that effort and have seats at the table. With Boehner's involvement, his own political action committee, the Freedom Project, will also be represented.

Spokesmen for both Boehner and Cole deny the group is an added layer of oversight over a struggling NRCC. "The idea was to get a group of some of the most politically-active members and a cross section of our conference committed and coordinating towards our shared goal of electing more Republicans to the House in the Fall," said Michael Steel, a spokesman for Boehner.

Publicly, Republicans say momentum is swinging their way. "Republicans are committed to winning in Mississippi and we believe the momentum is on our side," NRCC spokesman Ken Spain said. "Voters will have a clear choice on Tuesday between Greg Davis who will represent Mississippi values in Congress, and Travis Childers who will say one thing on the campaign trail, but will undoubtedly do the bidding of liberal Speaker Nancy Pelosi."

Davis campaign manager Ted Prill added that, thanks to the NRCC and Freedom's Watch and his own candidate's financial advantage, Republicans are outspending Democrats in the district.

Privately, though, Republicans say another special election loss could be devastating to the party. The key, the leadership aide said, is to create unity in order to work for the larger good. "Either the conference pulls together and becomes a united conference, or they break apart and everyone just goes into self-preservation mode," the aide said.

The most recent national poll showed Republicans trailing Democrats in a generic ballot matchup by eighteen points, the same margin by which Democrats led the week before the 2006 election. A top aide to one GOP congressman said he was taking solace from Republicans who had been around during the fallout from Watergate.

Every Republican, regardless of allegiance to Boehner or Cole, just wants to get through the rough seas. But few have a false sense of hope. Said the leadership aide: "The question is, do we get through it in the next five, six months, or is it going to be a longer process?" Results in Mississippi on Tuesday could provide an answer on a national level.

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

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