"The political atmosphere ... is the worst since Watergate and far more toxic than the fall of 2006 when we lost 30 seats," Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia wrote the leadership in a bluntly worded memo.
"Clearly, I think we've got to do a better job" going into the November elections, said the Republican leader, Rep. John Boehner, one day after Democrat Travis Childers won a Mississippi congressional victory. That seat had been in Republican hands since the 1994 landslide that swept the GOP into power.
Several lawmakers and aides said a change was possible but far from certain at the National Republican Congressional Committee, where Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole is chairman. Party leaders also said they were on the verge of distributing a campaign season manifesto to their rank and file setting out conservative positions on taxes and other issues.
Davis, a former chairman of the campaign committee who is retiring at the end of this year, noted that polls show Americans overwhelmingly believe the country is headed down the wrong track, President Bush is unpopular, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee enjoyed a cash advantage of $44 million to $7 million as of March 31.
Childers' victory came one week after Rep. Don Cazayoux won a House seat in the Baton Rouge, La., area that had been in Republican hands for three decades. Over the winter, Rep. Bill Foster won an election in Illinois to succeed former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, who had been in Congress more than 20 years.
All three races were necessitated by resignations by incumbent Republicans.
Childers and Cazayoux both ran as conservatives, but Republicans and their allies sought to link them to Obama in television commercials. In both cases, some Republicans said the tactic appeared to backfire, prompting blacks to turn out in unexpectedly large numbers and vote for the Democrats.
One-third of the population in the Louisiana district and one-quarter of the population in the Mississippi district is black.
"We're not going to be able to scare people into voting Republicans by being against Barack Obama. You have to have a relevant agenda and a compelling reason to vote Republican," said Rep. Chip Pickering, R-Miss.
Yet other Republicans said Obama's record, which they describe as liberal, is fair game for the fall campaign. "It's very legitimate, parts of his vision and his agenda that the American people need to be aware of," said Rep. Adam Putnam of Florida, a member of the party leadership.
In Louisiana, Freedom's Watch, an independent group that promotes Republicans, had run an ad that said Cazayoux is "with Barack Obama for a big government scheme" for health insurance. "Their plan raises income taxes and raises taxes on small business," it said.
The NRCC broadcast an advertisement that said Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi represent "a radical agenda, very different from Louisiana's values."
In Louisiana, Cazayoux countered with recorded telephone calls by Michelle Obama that were placed into thousands of homes in black portions of the district in the final stages of the campaign.
In Mississippi, Freedom's Watch and the GOP challenger, Greg Davis, both used Obama in their television commercials.
Davis' ad was by far the more pointed.
"Obama says, 'Childers will put progress before politics,"' it said. "But, when Obama's pastor cursed America, blaming us for 9/11, Childers said nothing. When Obama ridiculed rural folks for clinging to guns and religion Childers said nothing.
"Travis Childers, he took Obama's endorsement over our conservative values."
Cole, like other Republicans mulling the results, said the voters had sent Republicans a message that said, "We want to know what you believe in, what you want to fight for."
In all three races, Republicans said the losses could be traced largely to local factors. They said the party was divided in Illinois, for example, a weak candidate was on the ballot in Louisiana and regional differences hampered Davis in Mississippi.
At the same time, the cumulative effect of the loss of three seats in special elections was a significant blow to a party that is still adjusting to its loss of power in the 2006 midterm elections.
"They are canaries in the coal mine, warning of far greater losses in the fall, if steps are not taken to remedy the current climate," Davis wrote in his memo.
Childers' victory leaves Republicans with only 199 seats, compared with 236 for the Democrats. Adding to the short-term GOP difficulties, Rep. Vito Fossella, R-N.Y., married with kids, is privately weighing his future after acknowledging recently that he fathered a child out of wedlock.
Numerous Republicans have said they hope Fossella will resign or at least retire. But given the party's financial problems, several senior GOP aides want him to remain in Congress until July 1. That would eliminate the need for yet another special election, this time in the country's most expensive media market.