GOP hearing a `wake-up call'

After losing three House seats this year, Republicans meet to map their strategy

May 15, 2008|By Matthew Hay Brown | Matthew Hay Brown,Sun Reporter

WASHINGTON -- The Democratic special election victory for a Misssissippi congressional seat long controlled by a Republican has party leaders crowing about more gains in November - and Republicans searching for a way to stop the losses.

By winning Tuesday in northern Mississippi, where George W. Bush took 62 percent of the presidential vote in 2004, Travis Childers became the third Democrat to capture a Republican district in as many months. With victories in Louisiana two weeks ago and Illinois in March, the party has expanded its House majority to 236-199.

"You are seeing a pattern emerge here," Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the Montgomery County Democrat who chairs the party's House campaign operation, said yesterday. "We had very good candidates, but one of the strains that holds together races in Illinois and then Louisiana and now Mississippi is the fact that people are just sick and tired of seven years of Bush administration policies and Republican members of Congress who have voted with them in lockstep."

"Americans want change and recognize that the Democrats are the ones to give them that," added House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Democrat of Southern Maryland. "That is not rhetoric. That is not polling data. That is three elections in a row."

House Republicans, who wanted to focus this week on rolling out a new agenda, were meeting behind closed doors yesterday to discuss where they go from here. House Minority Leader John A. Boehner called the Mississippi result "another wake-up call."

"We have to show Americans that we can fix the problems here in Washington and fix the problems that they deal with every day, whether it's gas prices, whether it's the cost of health care or access to health care, national security issues," the Ohio Republican said. "We've got to show Americans that we know how to fix it and we're committed to fixing it."

From here, it looks like an uphill climb. Polls show Americans would prefer Democrats to control Congress over Republicans by double-digit margins. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Van Hollen's organization, had $44.3 million on hand at the end of March to the National Republican Congressional Committee's $7.2 million. That was before the GOP poured resources into the Mississippi race.

When former House Speaker Newt Gingrich warned fellow Republicans to "chart a bold course of real change" or face catastrophe in November, there was little disagreement.

Still, analysts warned against reading too much into a few special election results.

"Don't buy into the hype," said David Wasserman, House editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "Democrats have a national advantage in money and in party identification. But you can't take the results of this election to mean that Republicans will lose every seat that's just as conservative as this one."

The National Republican Congressional Committee poured money into holding onto the northern Mississippi seat, which was left vacant last year when Republican Rep. Roger Wicker was appointed to complete the Senate term of Trent Lott. Vice President Dick Cheney visited the district on Monday to campaign for Republican Greg Davis.

In a district where Wicker took two-thirds of the vote in 2006, Republicans attempted to link Childers, a pro-gun, anti-abortion chancery clerk in rural Prentiss County, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, presidential contender Barack Obama and other national Democrats.

But Childers, who said his views were as conservative as those of his neighbors, won with 54 percent of the vote. The result mirrored that in Louisiana, where pro-gun, anti-abortion Democrat Don Cazayoux overcame a similar Republican campaign earlier this month to win a seat that Republicans had held since 1975.

In March, Democrat Bill Foster won the Illinois seat long held by Republican former House Speaker Dennis Hastert.

Van Hollen said the GOP has failed to understand "the real economic squeeze that Americans are facing."

"What's catching up with them is that the Republican approach has been to say, `No new ideas,' to veto good initiatives passed by the Democratic Congress and protect the status quo. That's a very difficult platform to run on when people are looking for change."

Wasserman points out that Republicans performed well in two special elections in December: Bob Latta held onto a Republican seat in Ohio and Jim Ogonowski ran better than expected in coming up short for a Democratic seat in Massachusetts.

The Cook Political Report is projecting that Democrats will gain five to 10 House seats in November, to go with three to six new seats in the Senate. The good news for Republicans, Wasserman says, is that this probably represents "rock bottom."

"Republicans lost most of the low-hanging fruit to Democrats in 2006 and don't stand to lose much more ground in 2008," he said.

matthew.brown@baltsun.com

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