As Losses Mount, GOP Begins Looking in the Mirror

By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 11, 2008

Since losing 30 seats and their 12-year stranglehold on power in 2006, House Republicans have kept asking themselves the same question: Can it get any worse?

On Tuesday, they may get another answer they won't like.

With lots of help from Washington -- including more than $1.3 million in campaign cash and a last-minute visit by Vice President Cheney -- Mississippi Republicans are desperately trying to retain a congressional seat in one of the most reliably conservative districts in the nation.

The stakes in the 1st District special election couldn't be higher, strategically or symbolically. The loss of a traditionally GOP seat to a Democrat would be the third in a special election this spring and the second in the Deep South after the May 3 victory of Rep. Don Cazayoux (D-La.).

Rank-and-file Republicans say that would force a day of reckoning for their leadership.

"When you connect three dots in anything, that's a bad thing. This connects the dots. At that point, everybody's got to come together and have a come-to-Jesus meeting," said Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), a retiring centrist who will help form a new advisory panel at the National Republican Congressional Committee.

"It's a time of sober reflection and, to some extent, resolve. I hope these special elections are a wake-up call," said Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.), the leader of the conservative Republican Study Committee.

Democratic leaders have stopped tamping down expectations and instead have set a new goal for the November elections of establishing a long-lasting majority that could dominate the chamber.

"We will have a strong, confident, predictable Democratic majority to take us forward, and then we will be in 2010, 2012, on the path to a strong Democratic leadership for a long time to come," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

Just when Republicans thought they had seen everything, Rep. Vito Fossella (R-N.Y.) admitted Thursday that he has a 3-year-old daughter from a long-running extramarital affair with a retired Air Force officer. Fossella, who is married and has three young children at home in Staten Island, is also facing drunken-driving charges in Virginia. GOP strategists are debating whether he should resign or announce that he will not seek reelection in November.

Fossella's resignation would mean another special election, this one in the nation's most expensive media market.

Independent analysts agree that a loss Tuesday would leave Republicans with no excuses. They blamed poor candidates in races in Louisiana and Illinois, where the GOP lost a special election for the seat long held by former House speaker J. Dennis Hastert.

"The Republicans would be ignoring reality if they try to explain away this race," said Nathan Gonzales, political editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

Since 1994, Republican Roger Wicker has been reelected to his House seat with between 63 and 79 percent of the vote.

But with Wicker appointed to the Senate to fill the seat vacated by Trent Lott, who retired, Republicans are having difficulty unifying behind Greg Davis, the mayor of Southaven, a Memphis suburb in the northwest corner of the 1st District. Davis beat a Republican from the eastern portion of the district in the March primary. That win puts Davis on the ballot in November, whether he wins or loses this week's special election.

Democrat Travis Childers, a court officer in Prentiss County, came within a few hundred votes of outright victory in the first round of special-election balloting April 22, prompting national Republicans to send out an SOS for Tuesday's runoff. Davis, the NRCC and conservative allies have flooded the airwaves with a multimillion-dollar campaign that tries to negatively tie Childers to Pelosi and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.).

This is the second special election this month in which House Republicans have tried to turn the race into a referendum on a Democratic candidate's ties to Obama. The strategy was unsuccessful in Louisiana, but Republicans view the Mississippi district as more receptive because it is slightly more conservative and has fewer African American voters.

The NRCC already has committed $1.3 million to the approach in Mississippi, triple the amount it spent in Louisiana.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R), a former Republican National Committee chairman, has collected donations for Davis from party committees in such far-away states as Pennsylvania and Michigan. Cheney arrives Monday evening for a get-out-the-vote rally.

"Republicans are committed to winning in Mississippi, and we believe the momentum is on our side," said Ken Spain, NRCC spokesman.

Democrats say they have nothing to lose. "It's hard to see any upside for Republicans," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which had a cash advantage of $44.3 million to $7.2 million over its counterpart on March 31.

By pouring $2.9 million into the Louisiana and Mississippi special elections, the Democrats have forced the NRCC to spend $1.7 million to defend its territory.

Tom Davis, who chaired the NRCC for four years, said he doubts the effectiveness of the anti-Obama strategy because of the contrast between the consistently unpopular Bush and the likely Democratic nominee.

"When Bush tries to articulate a vision," Davis said, pausing to choose his words carefully, "he will butcher the Gettysburg Address. Obama, he will make an A&P grocery list sing."

House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), in a private meeting with Republicans on Tuesday, admitted the limitations of the anti-Obama strategy and tried to sell his troops on an Obama-like message of "change" as their only hope for success.

"We can't win SOLELY by tying our opponents to Barack Obama and his liberal views. We also have to prove Republicans are agents of change," Boehner told his colleagues, according to talking points prepared by his staff and provided to The Post.

Boehner expects to unveil portions of a new policy agenda this week, part of a year-long effort to "rebrand" his party's image.

Hensarling, in just his third term, is part of a group of mostly younger conservatives who are pushing for a more aggressive agenda that rejects incumbency perks such as multimillion-dollar earmarks. He endorsed the call for even deeper introspection followed by a sharp new message if Greg Davis loses Tuesday.

"I don't want to tap dance 'The Good Ship Lollipop,' " he said. "But I don't want to crawl into a fetal position."

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