Monday, May 19, 2008

Mississippi 1 Special: Why Childers Won and Why Davis Lost

By Stuart Rothenberg

Some of the things I have said over the past few weeks about the Mississippi 1st district special election I now think were wrong.

Initially, I assumed (without a lot of thought, actually) that Greg Davis would win narrowly. I imagined that if he lost, the major reason would be the mood of the electorate. I readily accepted the view that the district is a Republican bastion. I bought the line that the GOP primary bitterly divided the Republican Party, handing Democrat Travis Childers an unexpected victory. Most of these views were ill-informed.

My reassessment of this race comes after extensive discussions with a number of strategists and Mississippi experts, as well as after examining some additional survey data. Let’s look at some of the things journalists and Washington, D.C., observers believe account for Davis’ defeat.

Hypothesis No. 1: Davis lost because he failed to unite the GOP after a bitter primary and failed to win the votes of supporters of former Tupelo Mayor Glenn McCullough (R).

There is only limited empirical evidence of this. Republican polling showed Davis with strong numbers among Republicans, white voters and McCullough voters coming out of the April 1 primary runoff.

And for those of you who don’t believe Republican numbers, Democratic polling showed the same thing. According to a post-primary survey by Anzalone-Liszt Research, which polled for Childers (and Democrat Don Cazayoux, who won the special election recently in Louisiana’s 6th district), Davis came out of the GOP primary runoff with a 65 percent favorable and 10 percent unfavorable rating among self-identified Republicans, and leading Childers 73 percent to 13 percent among Republicans.

In the last Democratic survey before Tuesday’s special election, Davis had a 71 percent favorable and 13 percent unfavorable rating among Republicans and held a 71 percent to 17 percent lead among GOP voters.

In other words, the data don’t show that Davis had a major problem with Republicans coming out of the primary, even though I am well aware that that already has become the conventional wisdom.

It’s certainly true that Davis did poorly in Lee County (Tupelo), where his primary opponent came from, and in the eastern half of the district. But Davis drew almost the same percentage of the vote in Lee County as the unsuccessful GOP nominee for state attorney general did in 2007. I believe the results demonstrate that Republicans nominated a candidate from the wrong part of the district.

Hypothesis No. 2: Any Republican with a pulse should have won this district, so Davis’ defeat is a sign of the deep, deep national problems in the Republican Party.

This seems logical. The only problem is that it is wrong. The national GOP’s problems are many and may have had some slight effect on the race, but they aren’t the main reason for Childers’ win.

Mississippi’s 1st district actually is a conservative district that will normally go Republican in federal races — a far cry from how the district has been characterized, including initially by some well-placed Republicans who dismissed early Democratic assertions that the seat could be in play.

Most of the state legislators in the district outside the Memphis suburbs are Democrats, and statewide Democratic candidates, including Attorney General Jim Hood (D) in 2007 and Secretary of State Eric Clark (D) in 2003, have carried the district.

The Republican Congressional nominee should have an edge in this district not because it is such a red district but because Republican candidates normally draw at least a quarter of the white Democratic vote — conservative Democrats who have become accustomed to voting for Republican candidates in federal races.

Hold on, you may be thinking. Isn’t Davis’ inability to hold conservative Democrats a strong indication that President Bush and the damage to the Republican brand are responsible for Childers’ win? Maybe, but that’s far from certain.

Polling in the district showed Bush’s “favorables” well above 50 percent, and Democratic pollster Anzalone minced no words when he told me, Louisiana’s 6th and Mississippi’s 1st “are not referenda on Bush and Republicans in Congress.”

Hypothesis No. 3: Republican strategy in the race was flawed. They made a mistake by going negative on Childers too strongly and too quickly, and the effort to tie Childers to presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) failed.

I believe that this probably is correct. While Davis’ first TV ad after the primary runoff was positive — an endorsement spot that featured quotes from Gov. Haley Barbour, former Congressman Roger Wicker and Sen. Thad Cochran — knowledgeable observers close to the race agreed that Davis should have made much more of an effort to connect with district voters before attacking Childers.

“They never told voters what Davis stood for. They never built a foundation about who Davis was [as a person],” said one Democrat, who believes that Childers’ TV ads with the candidate talking “to camera” helped sell him to conservative voters.

Republican attempts — both by the Davis campaign and by the National Republican Congressional Committee’s independent expenditure — to polarize the race merely by calling Childers a liberal and linking him to Obama and Pelosi simply didn’t work. That approach was sufficient to produce a victory at one time, and it may have resonated with GOP voters in this race. But they weren’t the swing group in the contest, and those sort of generic messages seem less effective now.

Because Childers already successfully defined himself as a pro-life, pro-gun conservative Democrat, the GOP attacks bounced off him. Conservative Democratic voters didn’t believe the generic Republican attacks that Childers was a liberal.

To one smart Mississippian, the special election is easy to explain: “Travis Childers got the Bubba vote. He’s more like Bubba than is Davis, who hails from the Memphis suburbs.”

There is a lot more to talk about, including the nature, effectiveness and timing of the GOP ads; the fundamental appeal of the candidates; and Vice President Cheney’s visit to the district for Davis. But I’ve run out of space.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on May 15, 2008. 2008 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.