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Sending Childers up McCain's spine

While Democrats become increasingly nervous, a surprising House race in Mississippi indicates the GOP has far more cause for concern this fall.
/ Source: National Journal

There's a story being written this week about the Pennsylvania primary that sends chills up Democrats' spines. Perhaps you've heard it: Armed with all the money in the world, Barack Obama still can't work his magic with working-class white voters, especially those living in rural areas. Meanwhile, it's mathematically impossible for Hillary Rodham Clinton to win the delegate count, even after another big-state win Tuesday. Democrats might as well hang it up and start preparing Jim Webb for 2012.

But there's another story being written about a contest that took place Tuesday in a very different state, which should give Republicans some pause as John McCain ambles through the final weeks of his campaign's extended free ride.

I'm referring to the special election in a northern Mississippi congressional district, the one President Bush carried in 2004 by 25 points. There, in the cradle of the conservative South, Democrat Travis Childers came within 410 votes of winning outright the seat former Rep. Roger Wicker (R) never took with less than 63 percent. Childers, who survived a barrage of TV ads aimed at connecting him to his national party, is now considered the slight favorite to win the May 13 runoff against Republican Greg Davis.

A fluke? Not really. Just last month, physician Bill Foster (D) captured former House Speaker Dennis Hastert's district in solid Republican territory. If Childers prevails in the runoff and Democrat Don Cazayoux carries a similarly red district (La.-06) in a special on May 3, Democrats will have won three special elections in a row in districts that, according to Hotline master number-cruncher Amy Walter, Bush carried by an average of 59 percent in 2004. That, as they say, is a trend.

Disaffection with the GOP brand at the House level has developed into a major concern this year for the man now trying to promote that brand from the top down. Few doubt McCain will carry Mississippi or Louisiana this fall, but then few people thought Democrats had a chance to pick up those House seats, either. Regardless, the disconnect between traditional Republican voters and their candidates, widely detected for months by pollsters and fundraisers, is now playing out at the polls. The dynamics are similar: the GOP candidate faces fundraising challenges, a lack of enthusiasm among base voters and a Democratic opponent whose appeal to independents helps nullify party labels.

There were also signs of trouble for McCain in Pennsylvania, where more than a quarter of Republicans voted against him in the "uncontested" GOP race. McCain won 73 percent of the 805,000 votes cast, but Ron Paul took 16 percent and Mike Huckabee received 11 percent. McCain aides said many of their supporters stayed home because the GOP contest is, in effect, over. But Republicans in Pennsylvania, unlike many other states that have voted this year, were also casting ballots in congressional primaries, which presumably drew out a broader swath of voters. And if the GOP presidential race is over, don't those Paul and Huckabee votes serve as a reminder that at least part of the base remains unsettled?

The disconnect is playing out elsewhere, too. In North Carolina, local Republicans bickered this week with McCain over a TV ad the state party plans to run in advance of the gubernatorial primary on May 6. The 30-second spot doesn't attack the policies or character of the two leading Democrats running for governor. Instead it plays off those candidates' support for Obama and raises the specter of his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, beginning with a photo of Obama and Wright together and a clip of Wright's controversial remarks about America. "He's just too extreme for North Carolina," a narrator says of Obama.

McCain quickly cried foul. "The television advertisement you are planning to air degrades our civics and distracts us from the very real differences we have with the Democrats," he wrote in a letter to local party leaders. "In the strongest terms, I implore you to not run this advertisement."

But local Republicans defied McCain, refusing to back down. This is not about McCain or the national GOP, state party chairwoman Linda Daves told the Charlotte Observer. "It is about North Carolina, our values."

Of course, such Sister Souljah moments have upsides for McCain, who keeps a delicate balance between appealing to conservatives and independents. It allows him to stake a claim against the tawdry side of politics while his party does his dirty work for him. But when the GOP brand is tainted, so is McCain, who then has more to worry about than trying to match the Democrats dollar for dollar. While Obama has yet to "seal the deal" among Democrats, McCain's task to convince voters that they should stick with a Republican, even one they like, could be a far more difficult challenge this fall.