Just the other day, a Republican House leadership aide reportedly offered a prediction about the congressional election being staged this week in northeastern Mississippi, in a conservative district that routinely delivers landslide victories to the GOP. The aide told the Politico website that "if we don't win in Mississippi, I think you are going to see a lot of people running around here looking for windows to jump out of."
Memo this morning to all Capitol Hill pedestrians: Proceed with caution.
Last night, in the most blood-red Republican state in the nation, in a district that previously had elected a Republican congressman seven straight times by at least 63 percent of the vote, a Democrat named Travis Childers won the seat...and it wasn't even close.
Childers won it by eight percentage points (54-46), districtwide. He won his home county with 85 percent of the vote, a rural county that four years ago gave President Bush 65 percent of the vote. He won this election despite the pricey efforts of the GOP to "nationalize" the race, which is my polite way of saying that they repeatedly tried in TV ads to hang Barack Obama around his neck and suggest that Childers marched in lockstep with The Other.
As I suggested when I previewed this race yesterday: If the Republicans can't even successfully defend their home turf in friendly Mississippi, what does that say about the national mood in the dying days of the Bush era, and about the party's November prospects for erasing or even narrowing its 36-seat deficit in the House of Representatives?
What's particularly significant is the impolitic statement released late last night by Tom Cole, who runs the House Republican campaign operation. The usual deal in spinland is that, when a party loses a race, it comes up with all kinds of specious reasons to explain what happened. That was the case back in March, when the GOP lost a congressional election in the strongly-Republican Illinois district that had long been represented by House Speaker Dennis Hastert; that was the case 11 days ago, when the GOP lost a congressional election in a strongly-Republican Louisiana district. The excuse, in both embarrassing aftermaths, was that the Republicans had fielded lousy candidates.
This third straight GOP defeat is a milestone of sorts; it's the first time in three decades that a party has coughed up three House seats in special elections during the same calendar year. Cole last night didn't even bother to offer an excuse in the wake of the Mississippi washout (a decision which probably won't sit well with some of the House Republican cheerleaders). He spoke instead of the "significant challenges" that "should be a concern to all Republicans." And then he went into full candor mode:
"(T)he 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 candidates, whether incumbents or challenges, to take stock...and position themselves for challenging campaigns this fall."
Or, as Bette Davis might have put it (paraphrasing her most famous movie line), "Fasten your seat belts, it's going to be a bumpy year."
But perhaps the candor award should go to Virginia Republican congressman Tom Davis, who today identified the party's chief albatross in 2008. Davis is retiring this year, so perhaps that explains his willingness to utter what constitutes a no-brainer for 70 percent of the American people:
"The president swallows the microphone every time he opens his mouth."
With respect to Hillary Clinton's landslide victory in West Virginia last night, here's the bottom line: She came away with a net gain of roughly 12 pledged delegates. The problem is, her net gain has already been trumped over the past week by her net loss of newly-pledged superdelegates. In that time, Barack Obama has picked up 27, while Clinton has picked up two. There is nothing she can do to reverse the fundamental math at this late stage, aside from arguing, yet again, that the national party rules barring Florida and Michigan should somehow not be applied to her.
Regarding West Virginia, it's barely newsworthy that she scored well among the blue-collar voters, the ill-educated voters (70 percent of the participating West Virginians didn't graduate college), and the white racists (20 percent of all whites said that race was important in their choice; those voters broke for Clinton over Obama by 84 to 10 percent). Newswise, what Clinton needs is a true game-changer - namely, winning a primary on Obama's turf. That would be Oregon, next Tuesday. Don't hold your breath.
And her last-ditch arguments about electability continue to be undercut by the national polls. The latest Quinnipiac survey, released today, shows Obama beating John McCain by seven points and Clinton beating McCain by five - mostly because Obama plays better than she does among independent voters. And the latest ABC News-Washington Post survey, released on Monday, shows Obama beating McCain by seven, and Clinton beating McCain by three. (I would argue that the aforementioned Mississippi congressional results are potentially a better measure of the prevailing national mood than the exit polls in a Democratic primary in West Virginia.)
The Quinnipiac and ABC/Post survey numbers will further hasten the steady trickle of superdelegates to Obama; it was noteworthy yesterday that a former national Democratic chairman, superdelegate Roy Romer, who was originally tapped for his party job by Bill Clinton, declared that the race was effectively over and joined the trickle for Obama.
Superdelegates are typically shrewd political animals; they see where this race is going and they want to tilt for Obama now, so that they can claim some of the credit (and later collect some IOUs) for helping to carry him past the finish line. Indeed, if some of the fence-sitters remain uncertain about the outcome, they need only consult Hillary loyalist James Carville, who, on the eve of the West Virginia voting, told a South Carolina college audience: "The great likelihood is that Obama will be the nominee. As soon as I determine when that is, I'll send him a check."