While most political aficionados were watching the presidential campaign, another Republican lost a special congressional election. Last week Democrat Travis Childers beat Republican Greg Davis in Mississippi’s First Congressional District. The seat was previously held by Republican Roger Wicker, who is now in the Senate, making this a Democratic pickup.
Score one for the Democrats. Or three, actually — this is the third time the Democrats have won a special congressional election this year in a traditionally GOP-friendly district. Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert’s seat fell to the Democrats when political neophyte Bill Foster defeated Republican Jim Oberweis in an Illinois district that voted 54 percent for George W. Bush in 2004. Democrat Don Cazayoux edged out Republican Woody Jenkins in Louisiana, picking up a seat formerly held by Republican Russell Baker in a district Bush carried with 59 percent. The district that elected Childers voted 62 percent for Bush.
Does any of this matter? In terms of the Republican brand’s overall weakness, these special elections are just a drop in the bucket. Abysmal candidate recruitment and even worse fundraising are likely to make this fall’s congressional elections a GOP bloodbath. Even so, those who say these three races aren’t terribly representative have some solid arguments on their side.
Oberweis has run for office in Illinois before and lost. This time out, he was criticized for running a lousy campaign. Maybe his loss is a harbinger for Republicans nationally; maybe he was just a bad candidate.
That argument is even stronger in Louisiana, where Jenkins is a polarizing figure who has lost multiple elections and Cazayoux is a pro-life, socially conservative Democrat. An independent may have pulled moderate Republican votes away from Jenkins while the district has undergone a demographic shift. Since Hurricane Katrina, many black Democrats have moved to the area making it more competitive politically. Quin Hillyer has explained how this development may actually help Republicans win the seat back in November.
Finally, in Mississippi Childers ran as a pro-life, pro-gun, conservative Democrat who would never vote for a tax increase. Stuart Rothenberg and other political analysts have argued that this helped Childers win the quarter of white conservative Democrats in the district who usually vote Republican for federal offices. Rothenberg contends that Republicans lost the “Bubba vote” by nominating a candidate from the wrong part of the district and going too negative against Childers.
ALL OF THESE objections to reading too much into the recent special elections are valid. It isn’t entirely clear that these races were a referendum on George W. Bush or that John McCain wouldn’t be able to carry most of these districts in November. But these Democratic gains should nevertheless worry Republicans.
First, look at the contrast between the parties. The Democrats are nimbler, both keeping track and taking advantage of opportunities in unlikely places. The Republicans are sclerotic and reactive, failing to adapt to changing political circumstances. Even the Republicans’ “bad candidate” defense is revealing: It is always difficult to recruit good candidates in districts that are difficult for your party to win — Democrats are doing better at candidate recruitment even in places where GOP chances are fairly good.
Then there is the problem of message: If Republican attacks against candidates like Childers fall on deaf ears in conservative districts, they are sure to flop in areas filled with centrist swing voters. If the GOP can’t necessarily count on safe districts or compete in marginal ones, electoral disaster looms.
In the 1990s, Republicans majorities were built on the conservative South and GOP-friendly Great Plains and Rocky Mountain states but the party even had a model for winning elections in Democratic strongholds. Republicans held governorships in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and California as well as the mayoralties of New York City and Los Angeles. It wasn’t a model that could work nationally — pro-choice, pro-gun control social liberals would have fractured the GOP coalition — but voters picking Bill Clinton for president nevertheless voted for Republicans like Bill Weld, Pete Wilson, and Rudy Giuliani.
Now it is the Democrats who have a strategy of winning in conservative areas. True, they can’t run candidate like Childers, Cazayoux or even Bob Casey nationally. McCain still has the advantage over Barack Obama places like Mississippi’s First District. But that doesn’t mean they can’t use such districts to pad their congressional majorities.
In short, the Democrats are acting like a party on the way to majority status. Republicans are looking like their congressional numbers are about to be reduced to pre-1994 levels in both chambers. Tom Davis is right: Extenuating circumstances aside, the recent GOP losses are “canaries in a coal mine.”
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