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 mos 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.
Davis is also still suffering the aftereffects of a bitter primary against former Tupelo Mayor Glenn McCullough, in which Davis accused his rival of unethical behavior when heading the Tennessee Valley Authority. McCullough has not actively supported Davis, and the negative primary campaign appears to have given voters pause.
“I’m a Republican from the governor on down, but I would write someone else’s name in before I would vote for Davis,” said Curtis Ryan, a businessman from Tupelo. “It’s a proven fact that Glenn McCullough let him get away with these negative attacks.”
The stylistic differences between the two candidates are apparent. Davis hasn’t spoken in any of his commercials since winning the nomination, instead relying on a narrator and his wife to deliver his campaign’s message.
Childers, with his down-home Southern drawl, is front and center in his ads, with a populist message of speaking out against “Big Oil” and free trade agreements.
“We’ve got the perfect candidate for the district. Whenever Democrats win a district this tough, it’s usually when you get the right kind of guy,” said Democratic consultant John Rowley, who has handled Childers’ media. “He’s the right guy at the right time.”
Still, Childers, a self-described “pro-life, pro-gun Democrat,” has to face the hurdles of being associated with a national party that is well out of step with the conservative culture of Mississippi. To wit: Childers stopped by a gun show and found himself peppered with questions about his views on gun control.
Childers stayed at the gun show for only about 15 minutes after receiving a less than enthusiastic reception from the dealers, who included Wicker’s uncle and the DeSoto County Republican Party chairman, an enthusiastic backer of Davis.
“They think that just because you’re a Democrat, you’re anti-gun,” he lamented to Melancon after the event.
The NRCC has spent more than $1.27 million in this district to raise exactly those kinds of questions, saturating the airwaves with ads. The committee has been aided by Freedom’s Watch, the conservative advocacy group, which aired an ad accusing Childers of supporting higher taxes.
For its part, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has spent more than $1.82 million, and leading Blue Dog Democrats have been campaigning with Childers in the final week.
But the influx of advertising has hardly dented Childers’ standing, according to polling from both parties, and the race remains neck-and-neck.
One potential reason for Childers’ consistent standing: Despite the district’s conservative nature, Democrats hold the vast majority of countywide elected positions i much of northeast Mississippi.
“He’s an old-time Southern Democrat, ... an old-time Southern Democrat is a moderate Republican,” said Hayden Ables, the former chancery clerk in Tishomingo County.
“People in the South have a tendency to vote the individual, not the party. That’s the reason that a Democratic county will vote Republican on national issues, when it comes to Gov. Barbour, but also vote for Travis. Because it’s the individual, not the party.”
Patrick O’Connor contributed to this story.