Let’s start with the reasons that the national spin on the 1st District special election as a repudiation of the Bush administration and Republicans in general isn't necessarily the crux of the story. Then we'll come back to why the GOP does need to worry.
The Republicans didn't put their strongest candidate into the competition with the Democratic nominee and eventual winner Travis Childers. Glenn McCullough might well have beaten Childers by holding on to the big Republican vote in DeSoto County and doing much better than Greg Davis in the rest of the district, especially in Lee and surrounding counties.
As it was, all Davis ever had going for him was DeSoto County. Not that it wasn't a lot to have – a 10,000-vote lead right at the get-go last week. But one big county isn't enough when you're blown away everywhere else, barely scratching 40 percent. Any Republican with minimal appeal ought to have been able to do better than that in this district.
The geographic split was real: Many people on this side of the district didn't like the idea of having a congressman from suburban Memphis. Then there was McCullough’s non-endorsement distance from the nominee after Davis' attacks against him in the primary, which sent many McCullough supporters into the Childers column.
And, of course, there was the advertising – TV, mail and phone calls. It was bad all over, but Davis was accurately perceived as worse, and many voters no doubt voted against him for that reason.
So there were factors involved other than unrest with Republican policies on the economy and the war. Yet all these things can't obscure the trouble this election foretells for the Republicans.
For a long time now, the standard Republican tactic in Mississippi has been to trot out the liberal label and hang it on anybody running as a Democrat. It may work with some, but for others it's a stretch.
People either knew Travis Childers, or at least knew that he had been an elected official in Prentiss County for 16-plus years. He got 85 percent of the vote at every stage of this campaign in his home county. The Republican attempts to paint him as some kind of political alien – out of touch with Mississippi values, the ads said – were patently ridiculous, and voters saw through them.
The average Mississippi voter is socially conservative: Pro-gun, anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage. That voter also is pro-military and patriotic in the traditional sense. Throw in racial and civil rights issues in earlier times, and you have the key factors that produced disaffection among Mississippi white voters with the national Democratic Party through the years.
But Mississippians have never been automatically opposed to Democratic economic policies. Once you remove the social issues component – as Travis Childers, and incidentally, Ronnie Musgrove have – the populist streak among Mississippians leaves lots of voters open to the argument that Republican economic policies favor the rich and hurt working people.
Hence, Childers' willingness in the campaign to decry “Big Oil,” to slam trade deals that have cost jobs, and to suggest that the Bush tax cuts need to be restructured with more emphasis on the middle class.
Republicans may consider these “liberal” positions, but lots of populist-minded Mississippi voters don't.
This disconnect has to be of some concern when you're a Republican running in uncertain economic times.
Then there was the Obama tactic – linking Childers with the likely Democratic presidential nominee and the infamous Rev. Wright. Not only did it not work, it completely backfired, motivating black voters to turn out for Childers. Will Republicans do it again on behalf of Davis and Roger Wicker in his Senate race against Musgrove? Only at great risk.
So what do Republicans do? They get a positive message, that's what. They tell voters what they're going to do to make their lives better – which is what they've done when they've been most successful.
The old game is over, at least for this political season. There's a real two-party system at work, and voters aren’t necessarily in the mood to be loyal to any brand. Liberal-baiting won’t be enough this year. The voters want more, and better, than that.
Lloyd Gray is editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at 678-1579 or firstname.lastname@example.org.