Week in Preview: North Mississippi All Star Race
It's been quite some time since the Democratic presidential race took a back seat to the battle for control of Congress but with Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) the presumptive nominee the focus of the political world will shift south -- to a special House election in Mississippi tomorrow.
The 1st District, which takes in much of northern Mississippi shouldn't be competitive. President Bush carried the district with 62 percent of the vote in 2004 and Rep. Roger Wicker (R) held the seat easily since winning it in 1994. According to the Cook Political Report's Partisan Voting Index (PVI), an attempt to rate the partisanship of each district in comparison to all others, Missippi's 1st has a score of R+10. Democrats represent only 7 seats with a PVI that high.
So, when Wicker was selected by Gov. Haley Barbour (R) earlier this year to fill the vacancy caused by the resignation of Sen. Trent Lott (R), there was little attention paid to the special election triggered by Wicker's departure.
But, the confluence of a brutal national environment for Republicans, a considerable black population in the district (26 percent according to the 2000 Census) and the emergence of a conservative Democrat have turned the race into a barn burner.
Late last month in the open primary for the seat, Democrat Travis Childers very nearly won the race outright -- coming within a few hundred votes of the 50 percent he needed to avoid a runoff against Southhaven Mayor Greg Davis (R), who placed second.
The intervening three weeks have featured massive spending by both national parties as well as a variety of third party groups. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has sunk nearly $2 million into the contest, while the National Republican Congressional Committee has invested $1.3 million -- roughly 18 percent of the total cash on hand for the organization at the end of March. (The DCCC had $44 million on hand at that time.)
Freedom's Watch, a group founded by a number of prominent conservatives, has also been spending freely on ads in the district that attack Childers as a liberal on taxes among other things. (So far this month, Freedom's Watch has dropped nearly $300,000 on ads, according to a report filed with the Federal Election Commission.)
Despite the onslaught of spending, knowledgeable sources on both sides of the aisle insist little has changed in the last 21 days. Childers is believed to have a mid single digit lead over Davis with Republican strategists turning pessimistic about their chances in the last 48 hours or so.
While there are any number of local factors at work in this race (Davis comes from the Memphis suburbs, and, therefore is not well liked by many residents in the district's rural areas, neither Davis nor Childers will have their party identification after their names on the ballot, etc.), make no mistake: a loss here would send seismic shock waves through an already rattled group of congressional Republicans.
It would mark the third Republican seat lost in a special election this cycle; the first was the Illinois seat vacated by former House Speaker Dennis Hastert (Ill.), the second came just nine days ago when state Rep. Don Cazayoux (D) defeated former state Rep. Woody Jenkins (R).
Three special election losses in quick succession will force House Republicans to come face to face with the stark reality likely to face them at the ballot box in the fall. A loss tomorrow in Mississippi could well push a few wavering GOP incumbents to opt for retirement rather than run the risk of losing in the fall. Republicans have already seen 26 incumbents announce their retirements, a number coming in tough districts for the party to hold. A few more no-go decisions will further broaden the playing field on which Democrats will seek to build their gains in 2006.
The other thing to keep an eye on if Republicans come up short in Mississippi is the fate of NRCC Chairman Tom Cole (Okla.). Cole and House Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio) have had a testy relationship this cycle and the Ohio Republican could well be looking for a reason to replace Cole. It's unfair to blame Cole for the panoply of problems that have beset his party (and its candidates) this cycle but if the team is struggling, sometimes the manager takes the fall.
Much rides on the result in Mississippi tomorrow.
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