There was no sugar coating this one the Republican Party got beat, and it got beat soundly. In any other year, Mississippi's 1st Congressional district would not have been a question. President Bush won the northeast corner of the state with two-thirds of the vote in 2004, the same margin that elected the last Republican congressman there in 2006. But Tuesday night, in a special election to replace the Representative who had moved on to take over Trent Lott's Senate seat, the results came in ugly. Travis Childers, a pro-life Democrat who supports gun rights, swept the district with 54% of the ballots.
It was the third leg of this spring's Democratic special election trifecta, and it leaves the GOP looking lame ahead of the fall campaign. In March, Republicans lost the once-safe Illinois seat held by former Republican Speaker Dennis Hastert, followed by a Louisiana loss in another long-held seat this month. On Capitol Hill, Democrats did not even try to contain their glee. "The Republicans can run, but they can't hide in any district in America," proclaimed Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen, head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which spent close to $1.8 million on the race.
Republicans, meanwhile, struggled to avoid panic. House Republican leader John Boehner called the results a "wake-up call." The head of the GOP election effort, Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole, told his members to "take stock of their campaigns." His message was unmistakable: The national party cannot protect them. Republicans spent at least $1.3 million to defeat Childers, and even flew in Vice President Dick Cheney for a last-minute appearance. While he did not personally visit, Presidential candidate John McCain did record robocalls as part of the effort. "Voters remain pessimistic about the country and the Republican Party in general," Cole explained.
Childers' victory also served to counter two other hopes for Republicans going into the fall: The efficacy of demonizing Barack Obama in down-ballot races, and the power of Republican interest groups to win back voters. Republican candidate Greg Davis ran television ads showing Obama's pastor, Jeremiah Wright, damning America, and quoting Obama's comment about bitter America. At the same time, Freedom Watch, an independent conservative group, spent close to $500,000 on ads saying that Childers would raise taxes. Neither effort seems to have had its intended effect.
In fact, the Democratic Party seized on the Freedom's Watch ads, which Davis did not control. In a radio spot, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee attacked Davis for being supported by Sheldon Adelson, a casino tycoon who funds Freedom's Watch, calling Adelson "one of Atheist China's top American business partners." Along with other American casino companies, Adelson operates resorts in Macau, just outside Hong Kong.
The harsh realities of Tuesday's results may not sink McCain, who has carefully cultivated an image of being a party maverick and who polls well ahead of the Republican brand. But they do portend the possibility that the Congressional Democratic majority could grow to a size not seen since the 1980s; though it is still early in the cycle, political observers say Democrats hope to pick up one or more Senate seats and as many as a dozen more House seats. Or as Larry Sabato, a political prognosticator at the University of Virginia, put it, "Republicans have to worry that this tide could turn into a tsunami by November."