IN MISSISSIPPI this week, the Republicans lost a congressional seat they held since 1994. This followed the loss of a congressional seat in Louisiana that they held since 1974. They lost both special elections after trying to cut and paste Barack Obama over the Democratic candidate.
Those results, plus the Republicans’ earlier special-election loss in Illinois of the seat of former House speaker Dennis Hastert, have some Democrats salivating and some Republicans in apoplexy. Former Republican House speaker Newt Gingrich wrote last week that “the Republican brand has been so badly damaged that if Republicans try to run an anti-Obama, anti-Rev. Wright or (if Senator Clinton wins), anti-Clinton campaign, they are simply going to fail.”
Gingrich said if the Republicans fail to “chart a bold course of real reform,” the party “could face a catastrophic election this fall.”
What it means for Obama himself in the Deep South is already subject to vigorous debate, when the likely Democratic nominee for president is likely to face Republican John McCain. Merle Black, an Emory University political analyst, says the special races were too special to generalize about, as they pitted conservative Democrats against conservative Republicans who were widely viewed as weak. Childers, who supports gun rights and is antiabortion, in fact distanced himself from Obama with an ad decrying “the lies and attacks linking me to politicians I don’t know and have never even met.”
Black does not see Obama winning much of anything in the Deep South. The white vote in 2004 for Democrat John Kerry was 14 percent in Mississippi, 24 percent in Louisiana, 23 percent in Georgia, and 19 percent in Alabama.
“In November, Obama is going to be perceived as very liberal across the board,” Black said.
“My guess is that Obama is going to be on the defensive. I think the Republicans are very disenchanted with Bush and representatives in Congress and that’s giving the Democrats a chance to compete for seats. But in the general election, it’s still tough for a liberal Democrat . . . It comes down to perception and those perceptions are still very quickly polarized by race and ideology.”
A more optimistic analysis came from David Bositis, political analyst for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, an African-American think tank in Washington. He said the combination of relatively disinterested Republicans and record enthusiasm among Democrats could help Obama pick off rapidly changing states ringing the Deep South such as Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida, along with other swing states elsewhere. He thought Obama could help himself among the white working class and defense-minded conservatives with a vice presidential candidate like Senator Jim Webb, Democrat of Virginia, who was secretary of the Navy in the Reagan administration.
Bositis said the Republican attack strategy in Mississippi and Louisiana failed because of “reality.” He said, “The reality is you spend $100 to fill up a gas tank. No TV ad is going to change that. The question Obama will be able to ask is, ‘are you better off than four years ago or eight years ago. The resounding answer is going to be, ‘Hell, no.’ ”