Democratic Victory May Be a Bellwether

Travis Childers is a conservative who supports gun rights.
Travis Childers is a conservative who supports gun rights. (AP)
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By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 14, 2008

A Democrat won the race for a GOP-held congressional seat in northern Mississippi yesterday, leaving the once-dominant House Republicans reeling from their third special-election defeat of the spring.

Travis Childers, a conservative Democrat who serves as Prentiss County chancery clerk, defeated Southaven Mayor Greg Davis by 54 percent to 46 percent in the race to represent Mississippi's 1st Congressional District, which both parties considered a potential bellwether for the fall elections.

Democrats said the results prove that they are poised for another round of big gains in the November general elections, and they attacked the Republican strategy of tying Democrats to Sen. Barack Obama, the front-runner for the party's presidential nomination, saying it had failed for a second time in 10 days in the Deep South. Democrat Don Cazayoux won the special election for a GOP-held House seat in Louisiana on May 3.

"No one could have imagined the tsunami that just crashed on Republicans in Mississippi," Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said in an interview after the victory. "There is no district that is safe for Republican candidates."

House Democrats now hold a 236 to 199 majority, up from 203 seats they controlled two years ago.

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, sounded an alarm for all GOP candidates "to take stock of their campaigns and position themselves for challenging campaigns this fall" while lashing themselves to the presidential candidacy of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

"The political environment is such that voters remain pessimistic about the direction of the country and the Republican Party in general. . . . Time is short," Cole said in a statement.

Democrats begin the march into the fall elections with an enormous cash advantage: $44 million for the DCCC to $7 million for its GOP counterpart as of March 31. And 25 other Republican incumbents have decided against running for reelection, providing Democrats with more opportunities to make gains. Seven Democratic incumbents are not seeking reelection.

The Childers victory was the latest setback suffered by Republicans, who began the string of defeats in special elections when Democrat Bill Foster claimed the seat of former House speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) in March.

President Bush won Mississippi's 1st District by 25 percentage points four years ago, and Roger Wicker (R) won reelection with 66 percent of the vote in 2006. Wicker was appointed earlier this year to the Senate seat vacated by Trent Lott, who quit just one year into his six-year term to become a corporate lobbyist.

Childers ran a campaign that focused on his support of gun rights and opposition to abortion. One of his first campaign ads talked about his mother's recent battle with breast cancer. "Travis Childers still takes care of his mother," the narrator said, as images of the candidate hugging his mother ran across the screen.

Faced with ads from Davis and the NRCC pointing out that he had endorsed Obama, Childers countered with his own ad that proclaimed he had never even met the senator from Illinois.

As they did in Louisiana, House Democrats demonstrated their willingness to back a candidate whose ideological positions on key social issues would put him out of the mainstream of their caucus. The DCCC poured more than $1.8 million into northern Mississippi in an ad campaign that included accusations that Davis raised taxes as mayor.

In Louisiana and Mississippi, the NRCC spent $1.8 million on ads focused largely on pinning Cazayoux and Childers to Obama.

Van Hollen suggested the ads were "desperate tactics" and "did not gain traction."

Independent analysts said that the anti-Obama campaign put Childers on the defensive but that it is too early to tell whether such a strategy will work in the fall.

Nathan Gonzalez, political editor of the Rothenberg Political Report, said polling data in key eastern portions of the district before the race showed that Childers's numbers "aren't getting any worse" because of the ads.

Wicker, who in the fall faces his own election for the remainder of Lott's term, said that the race turned on "voter fatigue" from the heated presidential campaigns as well as a complicated ballot system that has produced four different races for the seat in the past two months, including primary contests for the general election to be held in November. "It's just very difficult to get people excited," he said.

Republicans will now shift into a period of internal review and possible recriminations.

Some Republicans are clamoring for their leadership and the NRCC to craft a new strategy, fearing a repeat of the 2006 elections, when Republicans lost 30 seats that they previously held and Democrats did not lose a single seat of their own.

"Some people in the conference, to some extent, have been complacent to waking up to how badly the brand was damaged in 2006," Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.), a leader of a conservative coalition, said in a recent interview.

This week, House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) unveiled a new campaign theme that directly embraced Obama's "change" message by establishing "change you deserve" as the new mantra for the House Republican Conference.

The Mississippi result "should serve as a wake-up call to Republican candidates nationwide," Boehner said in a statement last night. "As I've said before, this is a change election, and if we want Americans to vote for us, we have to convince them that we can fix Washington."

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