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Special Elections Present Peril for House GOP

Special elections are the least predictable of all political contests due to the vagaries of off-schedule turnout, the circumstances that caused the open seat, and the impact of the national political environment.

Republicans learned that lesson the hard way last month when Democrats won the special election to replace Rep. Dennis Hastert (Ill.), despite the fact that his exurban Chicago district clearly leans toward the GOP.

Democrats quickly cast the race as a "political shockwave" -- in the words of Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) -- that offered a preview of what was to come for Republicans at the ballot box in November.

Republicans retorted that their candidate, dairy magnate and two-time gubernatorial primary loser Jim Oberweis, was fatally flawed -- so the race could not be used as a barometer for other contests.

Both theories will be put to the test over the next three weeks in twin special elections -- one in Louisiana's 6th District on May 3, the other in Mississippi's 1st District on April 22. Both seats were vacated by Republicans and both districts went strongly for President Bush in the 2004 election. But even many GOP strategists acknowledge that the Louisiana race is a major problem and the Mississippi contest could become a headache.

Let's break the races down one by one.

Louisiana's 6th District is centered in Baton Rouge and had been held by Rep. Richard Baker (La.) since 1986. Baker had weathered occasional challenges -- most recently from attorney Marjorie McKeithen in 1998 -- but seemed to have cemented his hold on the district. It came as somewhat of surprise, then, when Baker announced in January that he would resign to take a job in the private sector.

Republicans' problems began almost immediately after Baker's announcement, as former state Rep. Woody Jenkins (R) announced his candidacy. Jenkins is a well known figure in Louisiana politics, having served for several decades in the state legislature. He narrowly missed defeating Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) in 1996. (He also ran for the Senate unsuccessfully in 1978 and 1980.)

Jenkins is also quite conservative and more than a little controversial. The best known -- and most troubling -- controversy surrounding Jenkins is the fine levied against him by the Federal Election Commission in 2002 for concealing the purchase a telephone list from former Ku Klux Klansman David Duke during Jenkins' 1996 Senate race.

Despite those potential hurdles, Jenkins' name identification and following among conservatives led to his convincing victory on Tuesday in a Republican runoff.

Democrats, meanwhile, nominated state Rep. Don Cazayoux -- the preferred candidate of the national party -- after a decidedly polite runoff contest with fellow state Rep. Michael Jackson.

On the heels of those results, Cazayoux's campaign released polling that showed him ahead of Jenkins by single digits -- a result not strongly disputed by Republican operatives.

Several other factors suggest Democrats should be favored to take the seat.

First, Jenkins runs non-traditional/non-modern campaigns, a fact evidenced by the fact that he writes and produces his own ads and raised only $291,000 for the entire contest, according to pre-runoff reports filed with the FEC. (Cazayoux had collected $565,000 through that same period.)

Second, the DCCC carries a HUGE financial edge over the National Republican Congressional Committee and its independent expenditure arm is already running ads in the district attacking Jenkins for his record on taxes.

Here's the ad:

Third, Cazayoux is pro-gun and pro-life -- making it hard for Republicans to paint him as a Washington liberal.

Fourth, the district has a considerable black population (33 percent, according to the 2000 census) and, unlike Baker, Jenkins is unlikely to have much appeal to black voters. The fact that the Democratic primary didn't turn into a racially polarized affair should also work to Cazayoux's benefit.

This race, at the moment, looks like nothing but trouble for Republicans.

The situation is less dire in Mississippi's 1st District -- vacated by Rep. Roger Wicker (R) when he was appointed to replace Sen. Trent Lott (R).

The district, located in the northern reaches of the Magnolia State, has been held by Wicker since 1994 and went heavily for Bush with 62 percent in 2004. Even so, the 1st has some deep Democratic roots; the area was represented by legendary Democrat Jamie Whitten for the better part of five decades.

While six candidates will run in the special open primary on April 22, only two -- Southhaven Mayor Greg Davis and Prentiss County Chancery Clerk Travis Childers -- are actively campaigning for the post.

The winner of the special election will serve out the remainder of Wicker's term. Both Davis and Childers have already won their respective party nods for the race in November, which will decide who represents the district in the next Congress.

Interestingly, the candidates will not be identified with any party on the ballot in either the open primary or the likely May 13 runoff between the top two votegetters if no candidate gets 50 percent of the vote on April 22. The lack of party affiliation could well work in Childers' favor as he he quite conservative and won't have to run under the label of the national party.

A new poll by Childers' pollster --- John Anzalone -- should give Democrats reason for optimism. The survey shows Davis leading the open primary with 29 percent followed by Childers at 27 percent. Former Tupelo Mayor Glenn McCullough (R) took 14 percent while state Rep. Steve Holland took seven percent.

In a head to head matchup that named Childers and Davis as well as their party affiliations, the race was a dead heat: 41 percent for Childers, 40 percent for Davis.

The x-factor in this race is the the DCCC's ability to throw in a few hundred thousand dollars, which will be tough for Republicans to match if the race tightens.

The next three weeks will tell us much about the state of play in the House heading into the fall. Despite the obvious deficiencies of Jenkins as a candidate, a loss in Louisiana would be a tough pill for House Republicans -- still reeling from the Hastert defeat -- to swallow. A loss in Mississippi, coupled with a setback in Louisiana, would set off a full-scale panic among House Republicans and could even trigger a few wavering Members to opt for retirement rather than run the risk of losing a re-election race.

By Chris Cillizza  |  April 10, 2008; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  House  
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