Sunday, May 18, 2008

2008 U.S. House Special Elections

It is always quite depressing whenever I have to compose a post about an incorrect prediction on a U.S. House Special Election. Back on March 9, myself, and many others believed that the race for the 1st Congressional District in Mississippi would be "Safe Republican." However, after the results of the two parties' primaries, and the first round of voting, in which the Democrat just barely avoided winning the seat outright, the Democrats became the favorites. When all was said and done, conservative Democrat Travis Childers fairly easily dispatched of Republican opponent Greg Davis. The Democrats picked up yet another House seat, setting the GOP behind the psychologically important number of at least 200. Now, Republicans are in a near state of panic about their Congressional prospects for the November election, there are calls for leadership shake-ups, and members of that leadership have been quite forthright in now addressing that Republican candidates and incumbents all across the country really need to bear down and find a way to win seats.

In a large sense, the loss of the seat in Mississippi should be quite worrying to Republicans. It comes on the heels of two previous special election losses in Illinois and Louisiana. The Mississippi district is even more reliably Republican on the federal level than the Republican leaning seats in the other two states. While Greg Davis may not have been the most stellar of candidates, he had nowhere near the political and personal baggage of Jim Oberweis and Woody Jenkins which played in contributing to the other losses. Simply put, Republicans had no business not winning this seat. However, when details are closely examined, it does appear that some of the rationale may be related to the facts that crazy things often happen in special elections, as well as the old axiom that "all politics is local."

I found this week's column by professional political analyst Stuart Rothenberg to be very interesting in regards to what happened in Mississippi. He can probably address it all a lot better than I can:

Basically, the main reason he says the Republicans lost is that they picked a candidate from the Memphis suburbs across the state line (after a candidate from Tupelo had lost the Republican primary), which turned off a lot of other voters in the heavily rural district. The Democrat Childers was about as conservative as they come on social issues like guns and abortion, was better known throughout the district, and was able to "out-Bubba" the Republican candidate. Furthermore, Rothenberg claims Republicans erred in being too reliant on trying to tie Childers to figures such as Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama in television advertisements and did not make enough of an effort to present a positive rationale for the election of Davis. Conservative voters thought that the efforts to tie Childers to national Democrat leaders may have been too much of a stress and thus the strategy backfired. (For their part, national Democrat organizations weighed in late in the game with ads that seemed to suggest that Davis was somehow favorable to some sort of KKK memorial in his town.) While Republicans almost always carry this Congressional district in federal races, several Mississippi Democrats have carried the district in statewide elections. With a low turnout, and with the particular Democrat being as conservative as he was on fiscal and social issues, the end-result resembled a state race more than a federal race.

To be sure, Republicans should be mightily disappointed by the fact that the specter of a vote for Pelosi to be Speaker or Obama to be President did not resonate more in this very conservative district. Neither did a late campaign appearance by Vice President Cheney. Republicans should have won the district but fell well short, at least in this round. The loss of the the birthplace district of Elvis Presley had the effect of making a lot of Republicans feel as if they were waking up on Wednesday morning in the Heartbreak Hotel.

Something else to rant about; the districts in Illinois and Louisiana were lost when safely entrenched Republican incumbents decided that instead of serving in the minority, they would rather enter the private sector and make big money. This district became vacant when Republican Roger Wicker, who had a stranglehold on the district, was appointed by the state's Governor to the U.S. Senate. One can hardly fault Wicker for taking that promotion, as he and Governor Barbour could probably not conceive that the seat could go Democrat. However, this loss is similar as the others, insomuch as Sen. Trent Lott, who had just been reelected in 2006, decided to leave Congress very early into his latest term to begin a lucrative career as a lobbyist, and that caused Wicker to be appointed to the Senate and forced a special election for his House seat.

It is worth noting that once before, the actions of Trent Lott cost Republicans a House seat in Mississippi that they should have won and have not won back since. Back in 1989, a Republican Congressman died and Lott used his influence in his home district (which is even a more Republican one than the 1st) to slot one of his aides as the GOP nominee as opposed to the widow of the popular Congressman. That Lott crony lost to conservative Democrat Gene Taylor who has served ever since. So now, heavily conservative Mississippi has three out of four districts being represented by Democrats, including the seats now held by Childers and Taylor, who will certainly be considered among the most conservative Democrats in Washington.

Of course, this 1st District of Mississippi will still be contested in November, and as always must be mentioned, Childers' newfound incumbency should be a benefit. He will face a rematch with Greg Davis, who despite probably not being the right candidate to best win the district for Republicans is not expected to be faced with the overwhelming calls to step aside, as were those that hit Oberweis and Jenkins. Davis still could certainly win the seat back for Republicans in November with a much heavier Presidential turnout, in a district where the Democrat nominee, presumably Barack Obama, will finish far behind John McCain. Republicans will also hope that now that Childers is going to Washington, an effort to link him to Obama and Pelosi might be a more realistic sell. Still though, Davis and other Republicans around the country would be wise to not only run against national liberals (as promising as that might be in November) but to also articulate a positive conservative message that gives people something to vote for, instead of just hoping they vote against anything with a D next to its name.

The results of the special election on Tuesday have gotten much notice in Washington and in political circles around the country. Time will tell if it is a harbinger of another strong year for Congressional Democrats or just another in an unfortunate coincidental series of freaky political aberrations.

It is quite odd to see things assumed to be so bleak for Senate and House Republican prospects while current Electoral College projects show that GOP Presidential nominee John McCain could possibly win 300 votes.


At 8:43 PM, Blogger On the Right said...

I will admit that when Wicker was appointed to the Senate a few months ago, I never for one moment cnosidered that the Democrats could retake his congressional seat. I would have thought that a 54-46 result in the GOP's favor would have been an incredibly optimistic scenario-- for the Democrats.

It is a time for reflection among Republicans. Not conservatives, as such, because quite honestly Childers is a conservative on most issues, and he was quite obviously perceived as a conservative by the majority of the district (how many times can one person say "I'm pro-life and pro-gun"?).

I think what has happened over the past 5 years is that the GOP has forfeited its status as the party of low-spending, the party of administrative competence, and-- in light of Larry Craig, Vito Fossella, Duke Cunningham, Bob Ney, and many others-- the GOP has also forfeited its status as the party of plain simple decency and integrity.

The GOP can recover, and probably much more quickly than what most people currently think possible. I honestly believe that John McCain has a better chance of winning the Presidential election this year than Barack Obama. But at the level of House/Senate, the Republicans are probably going to remain the political Intensive Care Unit for another couple of years, at least.


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