Suddenly — belatedly — all pretense is gone.
The Republican defeat in Tuesday’s special election in Mississippi, in a deeply conservative district where, in an average year, Democrats cannot even compete, was a clear sign that the GOP has the political equivalent of cancer that has spread throughout the body. Many House GOP operatives are privately predicting that the party could easily lose up to 20 seats this fall.
Combined with the 30 seats that the GOP lost in 2006, that would leave the party facing a 70-vote deficit against Democrats in the House — a state of powerlessness reminiscent of Republicans’ long wilderness years in the 1960s and ’70s.
Things are not particularly more hopeful on the Senate side, where most analysts say Democrats have a strong chance of adding five or more seats to their current majority.
Panic and blame-casting for the dire condition were flowing in equal measures Wednesday inside the House Republican Conference and among party elders and operatives outside.
In the crossfire, there was a bracing new spirit of candor that has largely been missing since 2006, when many Republicans tried to convince the public — and perhaps themselves — that the defeat was the result of temporary setbacks, such as the House page scandal or bad headlines for Tom DeLay, rather than something more fundamental.
“The political atmosphere facing House Republicans this November is the worst since Watergate and is far more toxic than the fall of 2006, when we lost 30 seats (and our majority) and came within a couple of percentage points of losing another 15 seats,” Rep. Tom Davis, a moderate Northern Virginia Republican who previously headed the National Republican Congressional Committee, wrote in a 20-page memo to colleagues.
Former Rep. Mickey Edwards, an Oklahoma Republican, said: “I don’t know that I have seen a year like this, ever. The general attitude toward Republicans is so bad nationally.”
By coincidence, the current NRCC chairman — Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), the target of much finger-pointing for his strategy — got his start in politics as a young aide to Edwards. Like many in his party, Edwards said the GOP’s main hope for avoiding a blowout this fall rests in having candidates liberate themselves from their national party label and run on local issues.
But that is easier said than done. The Mississippi district won by Travis Childers is the third consecutive Republican-leaning district that Democrats have won in a special election this year.
Party strategists, most of whom spoke anonymously, said the implications of this record reverberate in all manner of ways that are not necessarily obvious at first blush.
Newly vulnerable Republicans. Suddenly, all sorts of districts that in typical years should be safe for the GOP, no matter the national trend, are clearly in jeopardy.
Those seats include the open seats of retiring Reps. Kenny Hulshof in northeast Missouri, Jim McCrery in northwest Louisiana, Steve Pearce in rural New Mexico and Terry Everett in Alabama.
Democrats breathing easy. Some of the freshman Democrats who were once viewed as highly vulnerable in their reelection bids are now looking to be in surprisingly good shape. Republicans haven’t been able to field credible recruits against freshman Democratic Reps. John Hall of New York, Brad Ellsworth of Indiana, Heath Shuler of North Carolina and Zack Space of Ohio — all of whom represent traditionally GOP districts that the party lost in the 2006 election.
One of the Republicans’ perennial targets, Rep. Melissa L. Bean (D-Ill.), s now heavily favored to win reelection after her once highly touted Republican challenger reported a near-empty campaign account at the end of March.
Money meltdown. The NRCC has now spent about $3 million to defend three House seats in the most conservative parts of the county — Dennis Hastert’s seat in exurban Chicago, Richard Baker’s seat in the Baton Rouge, La., area and Roger Wicker’s seat in northeast Mississippi. Until this year, Republicans rarely had to break a sweat to hold on to these seats. They have now lost all three of them, and the committee is even less-equipped financially to compete fully in an ever-widening playing field for November.
That $3 million total is about 42 percent of all cash on hand the committee reported at the end of March (in its latest filing). The playing field of competitive races in 2008 will comprise at least 40 seats, and possibly as many as 70. The committee just does not have money to help its stronger candidates — and it won’t even have enough money to help all of its vulnerable incumbents.
What’s more, in fundraising, just as success breeds more success, defeat is self-reinforcing. With the clear signs of how much trouble the party is in, it is going to be harder than ever to persuade donors to open their wallets on behalf of candidates this fall.
“If I’m those members, I’m very concerned. You look at what the NRCC spent last cycle in those races — who’s going to do that next time? All these Republicans are used to having more money; they’ve never been in a situation where Democrats have been able to outspend them,” said a top GOP strategist.
Heading for the hills. Plainly, there are large headwinds blowing that no operative or party leader, no matter how skilled, could counteract. But this fact does not mean that Cole and his team have not made matters worse through what many Republican members see as poor fundraising and candidate recruitment, as well as faulty judgments about message and resource allocation.
The second-guessing on the Republican side is going to make it virtually impossible for leaders to impose any kind of discipline on their caucus when it comes to showdown votes in 2008 or to running on a unified message. At times such as this, it is every man and woman for themselves — plainly the smartest move for individuals but not necessarily for the party as a whole.
“It is not beyond the realm of possibility that we could be down to 170 seats. It’s like back to where we were in the ’80s,” said an aide to a top GOP lawmaker. “The only solace we’ll have is maybe we can run against [Barack] Obama in 2010.”
David Mark contributed to this story.