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Southern discomfort

Mississippi Childers
May 13: Travis Childers speaks in Booneville, Miss. Childers won the hotly contested First Congressional District runoff election against Southaven mayor Greg Davis. Michael H. Miller / AP
/ Source: National Journal

Need more proof that we're in for another wave election in the House? Meet Rep.-elect Travis Childers (D).

He defeated Republican Greg Davis in a heavily Republican district in Mississippi last night by 8 points. No, Davis wasn’t some sort of serial killer; in fact, his only fault seems to be that he came from the wrong part of the district. He did everything that any traditional Republican candidate would do. He and his GOP allies tied Childers to higher taxes. They talked about House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi. They even threw in Barack Obama and Jeremiah Wright. In any “normal” year, this would have been enough to win.

But, it’s quite obvious that this isn’t a normal year. And, given that House Republicans have to defend 18 open seats in districts that are decidedly more marginal than this one, it’s hard to see how they can keep their losses this November under double digits. A 20-seat Democratic gain still looks hard to reach, but 10 to 12 seems like a moderate prediction at this point.

Sure, it’s dangerous to read too much into one special election. But how about three? Even more daunting for Republicans is the fact that as the contests progressed from the first special election until now -- from the early March race to replace Dennis Hastert in Illinois to the May 3 special in Louisiana to Tuesday's Mississippi contest -- the districts got progressively more Republican, yet the Democrats kept winning. In Mississippi, turnout actually increased between the April 22 primary and Tuesday's runoff, suggesting that Democratic enthusiasm has not been dampened at all by the negative attacks against Childers or the drawn-out White House primary.

To be sure, Democrats put up candidates that were tough for their opponents to easily tag as out of step with the district. Childers and Louisiana winner Don Cazayoux are both culturally conservative and didn't exhibit personal or ethical problems. But Democrats have been recruiting socially conservative candidates to run in Republican-leaning districts for years; sometimes those candidates win, but more often than not, they don’t.

So, if you're the Republican leadership, how do you spin these losses? Well, first admit that your brand is damaged. National Republican Campaign Committee chairman Tom Cole said in a statement Tuesday night that “voters remain pessimistic about the direction of the country and the Republican Party in general.” Minority Leader John Boehner’s statement was equally pessimistic, noting that the election should “serve as a wake-up call to Republican candidates nationwide.”

OK, so they aren’t in denial. That’s usually the first step toward recovery, but now what? Cole wants Republicans to “undertake bold efforts to define a forward-looking agenda that offers the kind of positive change voters are looking for.” In other words, he says to his fellow Republicans, those “tax-spend liberal” attack lines that have worked in the past aren’t cutting it this year.

But how do you run as the agent of change when it’s your party in the White House? How about running against a Congress, controlled by Democrats, that’s about as popular as athlete’s foot? OK, but that only works if you are running against an incumbent. What about in an open-seat contest? To that, both Boehner and Cole suggest hanging onto John McCain’s coattails — something none of the GOP candidates did in the special elections.

We know that McCain has his own identity that has allowed him to distance himself (for now) from President Bush’s anchor-like pull. But can his maverick-ness rub off on a state representative from Ohio or a sheriff from New Mexico? And, more importantly, how well can McCain continue to keep himself insulated from getting slapped with the “status quo” label? It’s easy without an opponent, but it'll be a lot harder when he's matched up against his Democratic foe.

For GOP House candidates to survive in this environment, they must find any way possible to position themselves early on as the outsiders and make their Democratic opponents part of the “establishment.” It may not work, but at this point, it looks like the only choice they have.