A palpable sense of doom has set in among Republican rank and file as the party begins to lick its wounds from last night's defeat in a special Mississippi congressional election. The loss, which was the GOP's third straight in what had been reliably Republican districts, spurned talks of even greater, historical setbacks in the fall.
"This is 1994 all over again," Frank Luntz, a famed Republican communications consultant, told The Huffington Post. "I was there. I saw it firsthand. The Republicans of 2008 are behaving exactly like the Democrats of '94 and making exactly the same mistakes. It's pathetic."
Indeed, even the leadership team responsible for shepherding the GOP's election efforts acknowledged that the party's political vital signs were depressing. Rep. Tom Cole, who heads the National Republican Congressional Committee, didn't bother to try and put a good spin on the loss in Mississippi -- where Democrat Travis Childers won with an eight percent margin in a district that Bush carried by 25 percent in 2004.
"We are disappointed in tonight's election results. Though the NRCC, RNC and Mississippi Republicans made a major effort to retain this seat, we came up short," Cole said in a statement. "I encourage all Republican candidates, whether incumbents or challengers, to take stock of their campaigns and position themselves for challenging campaigns this fall by building the financial resources and grassroots networks that offer them the opportunity and ability to communicate, energize and turn out voters this election."
For good measure, talk immediately flared, following the election returns, of the possibility of a Republican leadership shakeup, with Rep. John Boehner -- the House Minority Leader -- and Cole taking the fall. No firings or resignations occurred on Wednesday, but a meeting among GOP members commenced early in the morning with Rep. Tom Davis, a former NRCC head, offering a 20-page memo to shore up the party's hopes.
And yet, some Republican officials are concerned that Washington may bring more harm than help for the down ticket candidates
"Really the mistake they have made is to nationalize these elections when the national image is poisonous for Republicans right now," explained Craig Shirley, a Republican strategist with Shirley Bannister Public Relations. "What they should do is focus on local affairs. When you are sending in big time politicians from Washington and cater to the national media, you are reminding people why they are upset with the Republican Party in the first place."
Indeed, the GOP was hardly fighting the Mississippi battle with one hand tied behind its back. As a diarist on the Daily Kos noted, the party had a serviceable candidate in Greg Davis; the NRCC spent $1.3 million on the race, with Independent groups spending even more; national figures such as Mike Huckabee and Dick Cheney made cameos; and the GOP tried as best it could to tie Childers to the "liberalism" of Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Barack Obama.
And yet, victory remained elusive. This was the third special election in as many months in which the Democrats have grabbed a traditionally Republican seat. In March, Bill Foster beat Jim Oberweis -- a Republican endorsed by Sen. John McCain -- to take over former Speaker Dennis Hastert's old seat. Earlier in May, Louisiana Democrat Donald Cazayoux won over a heavily Republican district despite big spending from the GOP.
"This is as bad as I can remember since post Watergate," said Shirley. "It was so bad in 1974 after Gerald Ford was nominated for Vice President that there was a special election for his congressional district, which had been Republican since the civil war, and it went Democratic... The fact is that these are comparable races. These are all three seats that have been in GOP hands for a long, long time... Ultimately voters want to know what a politician is going to do for them. What has happened with the Republican Party over the last eight years is that some of the consultants have decided it is too hard to define what we stand for so we are just going to paint Democrats as worse than us."
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