In 2006, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rahm Emanuel had an inspiration: run culturally conservative Democrats in culturally conservative congressional districts.
This doesn't sound like the stuff of strategic brilliance, but it meant overcoming the cultural condescension of most national Democrats. In his 2006 book "The Plan," Emanuel knocked "What's the Matter With Kansas?" author Thomas Frank for declaring cultural issues less important than economic ones: "It's insulting to suggest that blue-collar workers are wrong to make faith or conscience, not money, their bottom line."
Emanuel's relatively conservative candidates carried districts in 2006 that Democrats had little business winning, and his approach is still working now. In Mississippi, Republicans just lost a special election in a congressional district they thought would be a showcase for the drag Barack Obama will have on his party. They ran ads linking Democrat Travis Childers with Obama and featuring a raving Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
But Childers is pro-gun and pro-life. A local businessman, he has deep roots in the community. No one was going to mistake him for Obama. Nor were they going to hold the fulminations of the Rev. Wright against him, unless the pastor were to come out of retirement to lead the East Booneville Baptist Church, where Childers is a member. He won by eight points. In post-mortems, Republicans had a plaintive air, as if it's no fair that Democrats won't run down-the-line liberals anymore.
Republicans have become adept at explaining special-election defeats in formerly Republican districts, after losing three in a row: in Illinois, in the seat that had been held by former House Speaker Dennis Hastert; in Louisiana, in a district they had held for the past 33 years; now in Mississippi, where Bush won with 62 percent of the vote in 2004. The typical excuse has been poor candidates. But Republicans used to win these kinds of districts even with lackluster candidates, and what does it say about the party that it can't recruit better candidates?
For Republicans, Mississippi should be a "fire bell in the night," as Thomas Jefferson said of a sectional flare-up prior to the Civil War. The National Republican Congressional Committee spent $3 million on the special elections, about 40 percent of its cash-on-hand as of March. Fundraising will be hurt by the losses, with business donors scrambling to curry favor with the ascendant Democrats. As the Politico reports, freshman Democrats in traditional Republican districts who were thought ripe for the picking during a presumed Republican rebound in 2008 aren't facing serious challenge.
And all this before Republicans face a financial onslaught in the fall from Democratic independent expenditures, left-wing 527s, the Obama campaign and the Democratic National Committee. If Republicans lose another 20 seats in the House, they'll be down roughly 70 overall, and if Obama wins the presidency on top of it, as the NBC political tipsheet "First Read" has noted, "it will be the biggest mandate any Democrat has had for governing since LBJ in '64."
The chairman of the NRCC, Tom Cole, hasn't tried to minimize the implications of the Mississippi loss. In a conference call with reporters the next day, he said so often that the public has lost confidence in Republicans that it could have been a Democratic call. Republicans readily admit that they have work to do reformulating their agenda, but are at a loss as to how exactly to go about it.
For now, they'll have to hope that John McCain finds a way to distance himself from his party and pick up independents while not losing his own base. Philippe Petit, who famously did a high-wire walk between the towers of the World Trade Center, had a less treacherous course. Over the longer run, they have to become identified with a domestic-reform agenda on health care, energy and family income that addresses middle-class concerns.
But renovating a party's public standing isn't the work of a few months. At least time in the minority provides opportunity for reflection.