Politics & Policy

Stormy Weather Ahead

For House Republicans, things don’t have to get worse to make for a disaster come November, they just have to stay the same.

And in Mississippi’s special election Tuesday, it was steady as she goes: a third straight special-election loss in a district Republicans are used to winning. Mississippi’s first district had been easily held since 1994 by Republican Roger Wicker before Gov. Haley Barbour appointed him to Trent Lott’s Senate seat. Bush won the district in 2004 by 62 percent. The district is full of conservative, old-school Democrats who usually vote Republican in federal elections in races polarized along conservative-liberal lines. Not this time.

Democrat Travis Childers, a business owner and county chancery clerk, beat Republican Greg Davis, a local mayor, by a solid 54-46. Childers picked up ground from his 49-46 primary runoff against Davis a few weeks ago when he narrowly missed the 50-percent threshold to serve out the rest of Wicker’s term. This despite an onslaught of attack ads linking him to Barack Obama and Rev. Wright and a last-minute visit to the district by Vice President Dick Cheney. Perhaps if Republicans had had at him like this for another couple of weeks he would have won by double digits.

Rev. Wright may be (certainly should be) a problem for Barack Obama, but it looks like he’s not going to be a problem for every Democrat in the country, at least not those whose ideology is a good match for their areas and have local credibility. Childers is pro-life and pro-gun, and another indication Democrats have become comfortable running conservative candidates for conservative districts; no one was going to mistake him for Obama. Nor was anyone going to hold the ravings of Rev. Wright against him, unless he were to come out of retirement to become the pastor of East Booneville Baptist Church, where Childers is a member.

In their other special-election losses, in Illinois and Lousiania, Republicans blamed poor candidates. Davis had a geographical challenge. He was from the suburban outskirts of Memphis on the western edge of the district and had trouble connecting in the rural center and east. But so what? Whether it’s poor candidates or bad location, losing is losing. The National Republican Campaign Committee spent $1.27 million on the race, about a fifth of its cash-on-hand. This latest loss can’t be considered anything but an augur of another double-digit loss of seats in the fall.

The chairman of the National Republican Campaign Committee, Tom Cole, hasn’t tried to minimize the implications. In a statement Tuesday night, he noted that voters “remain pessimistic about the direction of the country and of the Republican party in general.” Fingers have been pointed at Cole, who hasn’t excelled at fundraising or candidate recruitment, while he’s feuded behind the scenes with Minority Leader John Boehner. But the problem is much larger than him, and even if House Republicans were of a mind to replace him, it’s not clear anyone would want his job.

What can Republicans do? First and foremost, develop a consequential domestic-reform agenda, from health care to energy to taxes. John McCain’s health-care plan, which would make insurance more affordable, is a promising start and Republicans should champion it at every opportunity. Second, give McCain plenty of running room to distance himself from President Bush and his party. There are more and less intelligent ways for him to do this, but it will have to be done if he’s going to prevail in an otherwise anti-Republican year. Third, don’t write off black voters. Both their turnout and the margin of their vote for Democrats will increase with Obama at the top of the ticket, but Republicans can cut their losses if they make their case to them.

And lastly, batten the hatches: It’s stormy and the forecast is for more of the same.

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