Monday, May 26, 2008

Last Word (I Hope) on Mississippi and the GOP’s Troubles

By Stuart Rothenberg

Much has been made of the fact that President Bush won Mississippi’s 1st district by more than 20 points against Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004. Too much.

Newly elected Rep. Travis Childers’ (D) district isn’t the only one that voted solidly for Bush and yet sends a Democrat to Congress.

Even before the 2006 Democratic sweep, a half-dozen Democrats won in districts that gave Bush at least 60 percent of the vote in 2004: Jim Marshall, Georgia’s 8th (61 percent Bush); Gene Taylor, Mississippi’s 4th (68 percent), Ike Skelton, Missouri’s 4th (64 percent), Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, South Dakota’s at-large (60 percent), Jim Matheson, Utah’s 2nd (66 percent) and retiring Democrat Bud Cramer, Alabama’s 5th (60 percent).

In addition, Democratic Reps. Baron Hill (Indiana’s 9th), Charlie Melancon (Louisiana’s 3rd), Dan Boren (Oklahoma’s 2nd), Lincoln Davis (Tennessee’s 4th) and Alan Mollohan (West Virginia’s 1st) have multiple wins in districts that the president carried with 58 percent or 59 percent of the vote.

Rep. Brad Ellsworth of Indiana’s 8th took over a 62 percent Bush district in 2006, at the same time that Democratic Congressional candidates fell just short of winning districts, such as Idaho’s 1st and Wyoming’s at-large, which Bush carried with 69 percent in 2004.

No, I’m certainly not dismissing or minimizing Republican problems, and I’m not arguing that the Democratic victory in Mississippi’s 1st district is standard fare. It isn’t. Six or eight years ago, the Republicans likely would have held the seat, even with the nominee they had this time. The Democratic brand was so battered in the South, and the Republican brand so strong, that a GOP nominee would have had a significant advantage.

Nationally, Republicans currently stand to lose eight to 12 House seats, just two years after they lost 30 seats. Of course, my projected numbers could change, in either direction, as the cycle develops. Still, Democrats have reason to brag about their prospects, and Republicans ought to be trying to figure out how to turn things around.

But we’ve seen this for months — at least anyone has who has been paying attention to the avalanche of polls that bury us each week.

Obviously, the Republican brand is damaged and the president’s unpopularity has created a mood for change that allows strong Democratic candidates to take advantage of the public’s dissatisfaction with Bush and his party. That’s what 2006 was about, and nothing has changed. None of this is new or warrants the breathless coverage that it has been receiving.

While Rep. Tom Davis’ memo about the state of the GOP was generally on the mark, the Virginia Republican has been saying the exact same things for the past year. The fact that Davis put his thoughts on paper and distributed them widely is noteworthy, but it doesn’t change the political reality on the ground, which has been apparent to anyone who cared to look and to read what has been written certainly since last year.

Luckily for Democrats, the dynamics in each of the three special elections they won this spring have played into their hands. Woody Jenkins’ loss in the Louisiana 6th district special election was due overwhelmingly to his own shortcomings. And in Mississippi, Republican Greg Davis’ high personal negatives, combined with Childers’ ideology and personal appeal made the Democrat a safe choice for swing voters. Even in Illinois, Republican Jim Oberweis turned out to be his own worst enemy.

Nor does the Mississippi 1st district result mean that “there is no district that is safe for Republican candidates,” as Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen said recently. That’s just silly hyperbole and something the Maryland Democrat undoubtedly will be embarrassed to have said.

You don’t have to look very far for evidence that not all Republican seats are in play. Just drive south a few counties from Tupelo and you’ll be in the state’s 3rd district, where Democrats aren’t seriously contesting another GOP open seat. Then drive south over to Louisiana’s 1st district, which Republican Steve Scalise won with 75 percent of the vote the same day that Jenkins lost in the adjoining 6th district.

Of course, since the Mississippi results came in, there has been an upsurge in interest in third-tier Democratic candidates. If Republican seats flipped in Louisiana and Mississippi, could Indiana GOP Reps. Steve Buyer and Mark Souder be in trouble? Maybe for Souder, but probably not for Buyer.

How about California Rep. Dana Rohrabacher? Seems unlikely. How about Rep. Mike Rogers, who currently represents Alabama’s 3rd district? Could Josh Segall, a 28-year-old Jewish, Brown University graduate and lawyer knock off the Alabama Republican? Not as long as Mike Rogers runs a campaign.

There are other supposedly reliable Republican districts that Democrats have a good chance to win in the months ahead. But as long as Republican voters continue to vote for Republican candidates for Congress, Democrats won’t see a repeat of 2006. District demographics and candidate quality cannot be ignored.

Special elections often produce odd results when an unpopular president sits in the White House. They offer voters an opportunity to send a message. And swing voters and conservative Democrats surely did. But for those who seem shocked and hysterical by the GOP’s problems, I have only one question: Where have you been?

This column first appeared in Roll Call on May 22, 2008. 2008 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.