Will House GOP Lose Deep South Seat?

Democrat Travis Childers, the chancery clerk of northeast Mississippi's Prentiss County in Booneville, Miss. Childers will face Southaven, Miss., Mayor Greg Davis, who is a Republican, in a May 13 runoff to decide who will fill north Mississippi's vacant congressional seat for a few months. (AP Photo/Childers for Congress, HO) AP

This story was written by Josh Kraushaar.
This northeast Mississippi city, best known as Elvis Presley's birthplace, has become the site of a desperate last stand by House Republicans who want to keep their already-reeling caucus from truly being all shook up.

After losing two special elections in conservative-minded districts over the past two months, the GOP is now at risk of losing a seat in the heart of the Deep South - and is pouring all its resources into hanging on to it, including a rare campaign trail appearance by Vice President Cheney on Monday.

A third loss in Tuesday's 1st District special election would prompt new predictions of electoral doom in November, hurt the party's already flagging morale and usher in a new round of public finger-pointing among an already fractured GOP leadership.

Southern Democrats, turned off for decades by the party's liberal-leaning leaders in Washington, seem to be coming home. This special election comes one week after Rep. Don Cazayoux (D-La.) picked up a House seat in the Baton Rouge area that Republicans had held for three decades.

"You offer Southerners a conservative Democrat on the issues and a fiscal conservative, then I think they're understanding it now," said Rep. Charlie Melancon (D-La.), who campaigned alongside Democratic nominee Travis Childers on Sunday. "They were fooled for about 12 years. What happened in 1994 is going to happen in reverse."

The increasingly frantic hopes of the GOP rest on Greg Davis, the mayor of the Memphis suburb of Southaven, who is running against Childers to succeed former congressman and now-Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.).

The lineup of Republican heavy hitters dispatched in the campaign's final week illustrates the stakes.

President Bush recorded an automated message sent to thousands of districtwide voters. Cheney appeared with Davis on Monday night. Popular Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and Wicker campaigned alongside Davis.

Desperate for a win, aides at the NRCC have fired off automated calls from first lady Laura Bush, Arizona Sen. John McCain and Barbour to Mississippi voters to encourage them to turn out.

"In these closing hours, we need to go that extra mile to turn out the vote … and to remind everybody in the 1st District of what's at stake when they go into the voting booth tomorrow," Cheney said in his election-eve appearance. "What we need in Washington is a strong conservative congressman from Mississippi - not another Democrat going to bat for Nancy Pelosi."

But despite the national support - and the fact that this district is one of the safest Republican areas in the nation - Davis is finding himself facing a tougher than expected battle. Childers, a gregarious courthouse official in Prentiss County, has demonstrated widespread appeal among the district's largely rural population, and has effectively made the race a geographic referendum rather than an ideological one.

In the first round of balloting last month, Childers came within 410 votes of winning the seat outright, leading Davis 49 percent to 46 percent.

The GOP strategy has been to make the race a referendum on the national party's popularity in a district that gave Bush 62 percent of the vote in 2004. GOP ads accuse Childers of supporting higher taxes and portray him as a pawn of likely Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.).

Childers has 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 won most of those rural areas in the first round - carrying 16 of the 24 counties overall - while Davis overwhelmingly carried his home base of DeSoto County, the most populous in the district.

Childers began Mother's Day campaigning in his hometown of Booneville - about 30 miles north of Tupelo - where he dined among family and dozens of well-wishers at the Outtatown Eatery. He said he knew almost every prospective voter in his home county - not a stretch, given that he won 85 percent of the vote here (in a county that gave President Bush 65 percent of the vote).

"Make no mistake, I am not concerned about the future of Memphis; I am concerned about the future of north Mississippi," Childers told a prospective voter at a Mother's Day luncheon in Tupelo. "Now, what's good for north Mississippi may also be good for Memphis, but I want everybody to know I'm squarely for these 24 counties in north Mississippi."

Interviews with voters in Tupelo suggested that the regional message appeared to be hitting a chord. Several voters who said they've long voted Republican - for Barbour, Wicker and Bush - said they blanched at the slew of negative advertisements from Davis and were supporting Childers.
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