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Republican Election Losses Stir Fall Fears

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THE PROGRESSIVE REVIEW - May 19, 2008
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Republican Election Losses Stir Fall Fears
By Adam Nagourney and Carl Hulse
The New York Times

Washington - The Republican defeat in a special 
Congressional contest in Mississippi sent waves of 
apprehension across an already troubled party Wednesday, 
with some senior Republicans urging Congressional 
candidates to distance themselves from President Bush 
to head off what could be heavy losses in the fall. 

The victory by Travis Childers, a conservative Democrat 
elected in a once-steadfast Republican district on Tuesday, 
was the third defeat of a Republican in a special 
Congressional race this year. In addition to foreshadowing 
more losses for the party in November, the outcome appeared 
to call into question the belief that Senator Barack Obama 
of Illinois could be a heavy liability for his party's down-
ticket candidates in conservative regions. 

Republicans had sought to link Mr. Childers to Mr. Obama in 
an advertising campaign there. Republican leaders said they 
were looking to Senator John McCain of Arizona, the likely 
Republican nominee, as a model whose independent reputation 
appears to allow him to rise above party in a year when the 
Republican label seems tarnished. 

But Mr. McCain's advisers said the Mississippi race under-
lined his intention to distance himself as much as possible 
from Congressional Republicans. Mr. McCain has already been 
openly critical of some of President Bush's strategies. 

The level of distress was evident in remarks by senior 
party officials throughout the day. 

"This was a real wake-up call for us," Robert M. Duncan, 
the chairman of the Republican National Committee, said in 
an interview. "We can't let the Democrats take our issues. 
We can't let them pretend to be conservatives and co-opt 
the middle and win these elections. We have to get the 
attention of our incumbents and candidates and make sure 
they understand this." 

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Representative Tom Davis, Republican of Virginia and former 
leader of his party's Congressional campaign committee, 
issued a dire warning that the Republican Party had been 
severely damaged, in no small part because of its identifi-
cation with President Bush. Mr. Davis said that, unless 
Republican candidates changed course, they could lose 20 
seats in the House and 6 in the Senate. 

"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," Mr. Davis said in a memorandum. "The 
political atmosphere facing House Republicans this November 
is the worst since Watergate and is far more toxic than it 
was in 2006." 

The result in Mississippi, and what Republicans said was a 
surge in African-American turnout, suggested that Mr. Obama 
might have the effect of putting into play Southern seats 
that were once solidly Republican, rather than dragging 
down Democratic candidates.

Mr. McCain acknowledged the difficulties he and other 
Republicans face in this political environment. Asked at 
a news conference on Wednesday in Columbus, Ohio, if the 
string of Republican losses suggested a problem with the 
Republican label and if he was worried it would spill 
over to him in November, Mr. McCain said, "Sure, all of 
the above." 

Mr. McCain added that he was confident that he would win, 
but said, "I have no illusions about this; this campaign 
will be a very difficult challenge." 

At a tense, private post-mortem Wednesday morning, worried 
House Republicans demanded that their leadership come up 
with a plan to stave off potentially devastating losses 
in November. Republican officials said no leaders or top 
campaign strategists appeared to be in immediate danger 
of losing their positions, though in interviews, there 
was evidence of vast dissatisfaction, frustration and 
discouragement with the party's position. 

"The Republican brand is down, and it is going to be 
hard to get it back," said Representative Devin Nunes, 
Republican of California. 

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Representative Peter T. King, Republican of New York, 
said it appeared that lawmakers might have to fend for 
themselves. "You are going to have to run on who you are 
and establish some independence, and that is going to be 
tougher for some than others," Mr. King said. 

Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma, the chairman of the 
National Republican Congressional Committee, did not go 
as far as his predecessor, Mr. Davis, in advising members 
to step away from Mr. Bush. But Mr. Cole, facing growing 
restiveness among Republicans about the party leadership, 
acknowledged the tumult in his party's ranks and suggested 
that his committee would look for a change in strategy. 

"When you lose three of these in a row you have to get 
beyond campaign tactics and take a hard look and ask if 
there is something wrong with your product," he said. 

Advisers to Mr. McCain said they thought the problems 
Congressional Republicans were having would not translate 
into significant problems for Mr. McCain. But they said it 
steeled their resolve to run a campaign that distinguished 
Mr. McCain from both Mr. Bush and a Congress where he has 
served, in the House and the Senate, since January 1983. 
They said Mr. McCain would seek - sometimes explicitly, 
sometimes not - to distance himself by speaking critically 
of what he has described as excessive spending in 
Washington, as well on issues like the environment. 

"There's no question that the results in these special 
elections portend ominously for House Republicans, but 
they will have little impact on the presidential election 
campaign," said Steve Schmidt, a senior adviser to Mr. 
McCain. 

The special election results left Democrats and Republicans 
in rare agreement about one thing: President Bush looms 
as a drag on Republicans. Democratic leaders said a 
combination of anxiety among voters about the state of the 
country and the prospect of an unusually heavy turnout of 
African-Americans meant that many new Senate and House 
seats could be in play, including those in states like 
North Carolina that just two years ago seemed out of reach 
for Democrats. 

Woody Jenkins, a Louisiana Republican who lost in a special 
House election this month, said in an interview that the 
high African-American turnout in his district was "probably 
the decisive factor" in his loss. 

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The election results also raised questions about what had 
been a main Republican strategy for the fall, if Mr. Obama 
wins the nomination: to link Democrats in conservative 
districts to Mr. Obama. Mr. Obama, campaigning in Sterling 
Heights, Mich., said the outcome in the Mississippi 
contest, to fill a "hard-core Republican seat," proved 
that the strategy would not work. 

"They lost it by eight points, and they did everything they 
could," Mr. Obama said. "They ran ads with my face on it, 
and they said, 'Oh, you look at this, a former liberal, and 
his former pastor's said offensive things. They were trying 
to do everything in the book to try to scare folks in 
Mississippi, and it didn't work." 

But Mr. Duncan, the Republican national chairman, said he 
thought the strategy would be effective as voters became 
aware of Mr. Obama's liberal record in the months ahead. 

The latest defeat prompted concern among Republican 
contributors as Mr. Obama has lapped Mr. McCain in raising 
money (though the Republican National Committee has out-
raised the Democratic National Committee). 

Scott Reed, a former chief of staff to the Republican 
National Committee, said the defeat would dampen fund-
raising. "Republican leadership needs to really take a 
good look in the mirror," Mr. Reed said. "They're taking 
the party off the cliff." 

Republican House members said the political terrain was 
tilted against them, and some expressed despair about the 
months ahead at the private meeting on Wednesday. One House 
Republican rated the panic expressed at the meeting as a 
7 on a scale of 10. 

Another Republican who spoke at the meeting, Representative 
Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, said, "We need to, No. 1, 
prove that we are listening to the American people, and, 
No. 2, show that we have a plan of action to respond to 
what they are telling us." 

Contributing reporting were Elisabeth Bumiller from 
Columbus, Ohio; Michael Luo from New York; Adam Nossiter 
from New Orleans; and Jim Rutenberg from Grand Rapids, 
Michigan. 

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