Mississippi’s Burning: GOP Hits Panic Button

By Saira Anees

May 14, 2008 11:19am

FROM GUEST-BLOGGER RICK KLEIN, FROM ABC’S THE NOTE

The biggest political story of the day may not have had anything to do with the presidential race — or not much to do  with it, in any case. Republicans lost a House seat in one of those districts that’s often called "ruby red": The northern Mississippi First Congressional District, which went 62-37 for Bush over Kerry in 2004.

Coming in the aftermath of Democratic wins in a special election for Dennis Hastert’s old Illinois seat, and another special in a historically Republican seat in Louisiana, this makes three, which is something we journalists like to  label a "trend," a term of art that we use to cover (and over-cover) a story.

One thing that’s striking: In the run-up to the 2006 races, GOP leaders often quoted (Democrat) Tip O’Neill in explaining why they wouldn’t lose the majority: "All politics is local," they’d say, with the implication that a  national "wave" wasn’t possible with the right focus on intensely local politics.

They were wrong, of course, and the House fell out of Republican hands for the first time in a dozen years. And now, in a succession of races, the national Republican Party appears to have learned the lesson of a national message — and has nonetheless failed, rather starkly. In Mississippi, the GOP tried to nationalize the race by linking Democrat Travis Childers with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and likely presidential standard-bearer Barack Obama; it didn’t work, quite obviously.

Whether this is a harbinger or a snapshot, we obviously can’t know until November. But Republicans around Washington are nervous, and rightfully so, this morning.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing to come out of the GOP loss (for political junkies, anyway) was the memo put out by Rep. Tom Cole, the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, last night.

He does not coat his message with sugar, or anything else even mildly sweet:

"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," wrote Cole, R-Okla.

"Tonight’s election highlights two significant challenges Republicans must overcome this November. First, Republicans must be prepared to campaign against Democrat challengers who are running as conservatives, even as they try to join a  liberal Democrat majority. Though the Democrats’ task will be more difficult in a November election, the fact is they have pulled off two special election victories with this strategy, and it should be a concern to all Republicans."

"Second, the political environment is such that voters remain pessimistic about the direction of the country and the  Republican Party in general. Therefore, Republicans must undertake bold efforts to define a forward looking agenda  that offers the kind of positive change voters are looking for. This is something we can do in cooperation with our Presidential nominee, but time is short."

"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."

Memos like these are usually spin-soaked affairs, with the losing side explaining why the race has no larger implications, so avert your eyes, thank you very much. Cole takes the opposite apporach. There’s internal politics at work here –  Republicans have been buzzing that Cole is on the outs with House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, for weeks now, so he’s under pressure to recognize reality and turn things around. And memos like this can gin up the fundraising  base, and get House members and donors serious about the fall.

But Republicans are starting to hit the panic button. Cole’s memo comes in the wake of an extraordinary magazine piece from former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., last week: "The Republican brand has been so badly damaged that if  Republicans try to run an anti-Obama, anti- Reverend Wright, or (if Senator Clinton wins), anti-Clinton campaign, they  are simply going to fail," Gingrich wrote. "The danger for House and Senate Republicans in 2008 is that the voters  will say, ‘Not the Republicans.’ "

One of the few bright spots for the GOP these days is that Sen. John McCain is running strong in head-to-head polls  against either Obama or Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. But his coattails are unlikely to be enough, particularly not if the presidential election is as close as it appears likely to be.

What do you think? Thoughts on how the Republican Party can reinvent its brand in time for November?

– Rick Klein

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