Plenty at Stake in Mississippi

Posted May 12, 2008 at 6:34pm

After back-to-back Democratic victories in competitive special elections this spring Democrats have a golden opportunity today to land a crushing blow to GOP confidence just six months before the November elections.

A win in the special House election taking place in Mississippi’s 1st district would be a hat-trick of historic proportions for a party that is already excited about its prospects for picking up seats in the House this cycle.

For Republicans, the contest for the seat of now-Sen. Roger Wicker (R) is a no excuses affair and a chance for the party to prove that the general election isn’t shaping up to be the doomsday that many insiders are beginning to predict.

The stakes really are that high today in what is being called a tossup race between Southaven Mayor Greg Davis (R) and Prentiss County Chancery Clerk Travis Childers (D).

As of Sunday, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee was approaching the $2 million mark in independent expenditures spent this year on a seat that, during Wicker’s seven terms, was safely in the Republican column.

The National Republican Congressional Committee had dropped more than $1.27 million in independent expenditures in the 1st district as of Friday and has worked to bring key party celebrities leading up to today’s vote. On Monday, Vice President Cheney made a campaign stop for Davis in Southhaven and Wicker, former Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) and popular Gov. Haley Barbour (R) all have stumped for Davis.

Meanwhile the conservative political group Freedom’s Watch has also played heavily in this race with about $450,000 in ad buys and Davis and Childers’ recent Federal Election Commission contribution reports read like a veritable Who’s Who of Members of Congress and political action committees.

In the three weeks since the first ballot of the special election — where Childers outperformed Davis but came up just 410 votes shy of locking up the special election outright — Republicans have actively tried to turn this runoff into a purely partisan battle rather than a contest between two conservative candidates.

“In the first vote, turnout was down for us and turnout was up for Travis,” Davis spokesman Ted Prill said on Monday. “I think we’ve righted that ship. We’ve not only given them a reason to vote for us but also given them a reason to vote against Travis. We really didn’t have a lot of time to do that last time around” due to the fact that the special election was held just three weeks after the primary runoffs in April.

The Davis campaign has run ads blasting Childers for his ties to Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and for not condemning the words of Obama’s controversial former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. The NRCC has been happy to do the same.

Childers acknowledged Monday that the campaign has turned decidedly negative but said Davis and the national Republican interests are to blame.

“They are running scared,” he said, because Democrats have outperformed Republicans in the both primary elections and Davis came in second on the first special election ballot.

But like the first round of the special election, the two candidates’ names will appear on the ballot today without their party affiliations — a decided advantage for Childers.

Another theme that has emerged in this race is the regional battle between Davis’ base in DeSoto County — the suburban Memphis county that is the district’s most populous Republican stronghold — and Childers’ base in and around Tupelo, where Wicker is also from.

During Wicker’s time in the House the district was described by many Republicans in the state as a Tupelo seat and Democrats would be happy to let that trend continue now that Childers has emerged as the Tupelo candidate.

In the primary race, the primary runoff and the first ballot of the special election — all of which have taken place over the last nine weeks — Davis has consistently churned out enough votes in DeSoto to make up for his shortcomings elsewhere in the district.

Although he won 81 percent in Desoto three weeks ago and turned out about a third of his district vote total there, Republican sources say he’ll have to do even better there today if he hopes to catch Childers.

Childers won 16 of the district’s 24 counties on the first runoff ballot in April, earning 49 percent to Davis’ 46 percent.

“We’ve always said we are the rural county candidate in this race and of the 24 counties 20 of these counties are clearly still rural counties … and that’s a complement not an insult,” Childers said Monday.

In the final days of the runoff, the Davis campaign has also turned a good deal of attention to Lee County, the strongly Republican county where Tupelo is located.

Lee County had been Wicker’s base during his time in the House but Childers took 58 percent of the vote there three weeks ago.

Some Mississippi political insiders have attributed Davis’ underperformance in Lee County to residual bad feelings left over from his nasty primary against former Tupelo Mayor Glenn McCullough (R) in early April.

“I think that the biggest problem for Greg Davis is that at no point in the campaign was there a real clear of coming together of the rift that occurred in the primary,” said Richard Forgette, the chairman of the University of Mississippi political science department.

By contrast, Childers primary campaign against state Rep. Steve Holland (D) was a generally positive affair and Holland, who is also from Tupelo, has emerged as a vocal cheerleader for Childers’ campaign since the special began.

Davis’ spokesman said the Southhaven Mayor has set his sights on boosting his Lee County numbers this time around and is confident those efforts will pay off today.

Davis “has gotten to know Highway 78 between Southhaven and Tupelo real well,” Prill said.

Wicker, Barbour and Mississippi Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant (R) were all stumping for Davis Monday in Tupelo but Childers is also trying to pick up votes in Davis’ backyard. Over the weekend, he landed the endorsement of the Memphis Commercial Appeal, a major paper in DeSoto County.

Meanwhile Lott, who supported Davis during the primary, spoke at the state Republican convention over the weekend and on Mississippi talk radio Monday about the need for Republicans to look beyond regional conflicts.

Brian Perry, a Mississippi political consultant who was at the Republican convention, said that Lott was encouraging Republicans in the eastern part of the district to join Republicans in DeSoto county in voting for Davis “because in the end it’s that conservative Republican ideology that wins. … If they don’t support Davis and Childers gets in it would be like cutting off your nose to spite your face.”

On Capitol Hill, another special election loss would deliver a devastating blow to Republican morale.

House GOP leaders are slated to begin rolling out a set of agenda and message items on Wednesday, the same day they may be forced to explain a loss in Mississippi — which would be the third special election loss for the GOP this year.

Privately, many Republicans are waiting to see what reasons the NRCC will give if the party fails to hold the Mississippi seat, after Republican leaders clung to the argument that their nominees in the two previous special elections were seriously flawed.

While the GOP candidates in Illinois and Louisiana carried personal and political baggage, geography would appear to be Davis’ biggest handicap. Some wonder whether losing Mississippi will serve as a wake up call that the problem might not be the candidates, but the party brand.

“Sooner or later that flawed candidate excuse is going to come down to there’s an R after the name,” said one GOP aide.

There has been talk that a loss tonight could prompt growing calls for more drastic changes at the NRCC, however the consensus now among most Republicans on the Hill is that the time has passed to be able to make major structural changes.

Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) warned the GOP Conference last week that the loss in Louisiana on May 3 should serve as a wake up call for Members to get serious about what is at stake this fall or suffer major losses at the polls.

Some Republicans are also hoping that the results in Mississippi will spur GOP Members — rank and file and ranking committee members alike — to get more active in giving and raising money for the financially handicapped NRCC. Party leaders have been frustrated by a largely laissez faire attitude toward pitching in to help with fundraising for the cause thus far.

“What I hope comes out of it is that Members — more than they have done so far — start picking up the phone and donating some money,” said the GOP aide. “Are you going to grab a bucket and start bailing water out of the boat or are you going to drown?”