Democrats picked up a northern Mississippi House seat in one of the most conservative-minded districts in the country Tuesday night -- an upset that will reverberate darkly through a House Republican caucus already reeling from losses in special elections in Illinois and Louisiana.
With all precincts reporting, the Democratic nominee, Prentiss County Chancery Clerk Travis Childers, defeated Republican Greg Davis, 54 to 46 percent. Childers was able to expand his three-point margin of victory from the race's first round of balloting last month -- even as he faced an onslaught of Republican attacks.
The victory marks the Democrats’ third straight special election pickup in three months. It will be a serious blow to the Republican Party’s already-flagging morale and will surely prompt a new round of finger-pointing among the already fractured GOP caucus.
"This loss is going to prompt serious introspection by our conference to figure out what went wrong and how to fix it," said a GOP leadership aide. "We have time to do that, and we will if we learn our lessons leading into November. But the next couple of days are not going to be pretty."
The special election was held to fill the seat of former Rep. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), who was appointed to serve out the remainder of Sen. Trent Lott’s term last December. Wicker had never faced a competitive race since first elected in 1994, and the district gave President Bush 62 percent of the vote in 2004.
The results amount to a rebuke of the Republican strategy of trying nationalize the race by tying Childers to Sen. Barack Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Obama held low approval ratings in the district, but the nearly $2 million that GOP groups poured into northern Mississippi failed to make the race a referendum on the national political landscape.
Republicans dispatched a lineup of heavy hitters in the campaign’s final week, including a pre-election stop Monday by Vice President Dick Cheney. President Bush, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and First Lady Laura Bush recorded automated calls urging voters to support Davis.
A GOP House leadership aide told Politico last week that “if we don’t win in Mississippi, I think you are going to see a lot of people running around here looking for windows to jump out of.”
The $1.27 million that the NRCC spent in the heavily Republican district amounted to nearly 20 percent of the committee's entire cash-on-hand. The committee has now spent more than $3 million to defend three conservative House seats, losing all three of them, and it is ill-equipped financially to compete fully in an ever-widening playing field for November.
For his part, Childers effectively downplayed the national implications of the contest, instead framing the race as a geographic battle between his home base in the 20 largely rural counties in the northeast corner of Mississippi and Davis’ base in the newer and fast-growing Memphis suburbs.
Childers improved upon last month's performance in most of the district’s smaller rural counties and his home county of Prentiss, and he managed to cut slightly into Davis’ margin of victory in his home base around the South Memphis suburbs.
"His victory has sent a political thunderbolt across America tonight," DCCC chairman Chris Van Hollen said in a statement. "It is yet another rejection of the House Republican agenda, the Bush Administration’s misguided policies, and John McCain’s campaign for a third Bush term."