Democrat Wins Seat in Republican Stronghold

The Democrats have won a special election in Mississippi's 1st District, the third seat this year in which they grabbed a Republican stronghold. In Mississippi, the victorious Democrat, Travis Childers, is strongly pro-gun and anti-abortion.

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Republicans are retooling their message after losing another Congressional seat in solid GOP territory. Yesterday at a special election, voters in a Mississippi district chose Democrat Travis Childers as their new congressman. He beat Republican Greg Davis by eight percentage points. It's the third time this year that Democrats have scored a victory in what had been a safe Republican district.

As NPR's Debbie Elliott reports now, those results have the GOP wondering if it's lost its way.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT: If Republicans can't hold on to a seat in conservative North Mississippi, where can they? That's the question haunting House Republicans today.

Representative JOHN BOEHNER (Republican, Ohio): It's another wakeup call.

ELLIOTT: House Minority Leader John Boehner admitted the party leadership has to do a better job with its campaign operation and in getting the right message to voters.

Rep. BOEHNER: We have to show Americans that we can fix the problems here in Washington and fix the problems that they deal with every day.

ELLIOTT: The Mississippi contest comes on the heels of two other painful GOP losses, in Louisiana and Illinois, the seat there long held by former House Speaker Dennis Hastert. There were few smiles as rank-and-file Republicans headed into their weekly closed conference meeting in the basement of the Capitol this morning. And the man on the hot seat was Oklahoma Congressman Tom Cole, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Representative TOM COLE (Republican, Oklahoma): Well, obviously, number one, a great disappointment for us. And I think, something that we need to think about very deeply as a party, I think, you know, a lot of people have lost confidence in us as a party to deliver on the things we believe in.

ELLIOTT: The GOP's strategy in Mississippi was to link the Democrat, rural court clerk Travis Childers, to national Democratic figures who are not popular in the Deep South, such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi or Senator Barack Obama.

But Childers is and campaigned as a pro-life, pro-gun conservative who understands the economic squeeze being felt by average folks. Some Republicans, such as retiring Virginia Congressman Tom Davis, believe the loss signals the party has lost touch with its base.

Representative TOM DAVIS (Republican, Virginia): This wasn't a problem, a logistical problem, or an organizational problem. This is an endemic problem, well, right now running in a party that's tied to the president, tied to an unpopular war, tied to high gas prices, and I think people were protesting.

ELLIOTT: Davis, a former chairman of the Republican Campaign Committee, sent his colleagues a memo today calling the political atmosphere facing House Republicans the worst since Watergate.

Rep. DAVIS: You can't explain Illinois, Louisiana, and Mississippi without looking at the underpinnings, and that is, at this, point Republicans are in a (unintelligible) they got six months to change their ways or they're going to face more of the same.

ELLIOTT: The national party sank nearly $1.3 million on the Mississippi special election. President Bush and Senator John McCain recorded campaign calls, and Vice President Dick Cheney made an election eVisit(ph) to rally Mississippi voters. That made the victory even sweeter today for House Democrats.

Campaign committee chairman Chris Van Hollen called the contest a day of reckoning for the Bush administration.

Representative CHRIS VAN HOLLEN (Democrat, Maryland): As you know, they put everything into this race in Mississippi. And I think one of the thing they learned was that Dick Cheney was as dangerous to Republican candidates as he is to his hunting partners.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ELLIOTT: But after all the Democratic gloating and GOP handwringing, House Republicans marched down the Capitol steps all smiles this afternoon. They were there to unveil their new family friendly agenda.

Representative Kay Granger of Texas took the lead in the rebranding effort.

Representative KAY GRANGER (Republican, Texas): The Republican conference has been taking a hard look at families today and the decisions are having to making the worries that keep them up at night. Today, we're presenting our agenda for those families with the changes they deserve and the solutions we propose to make their lives better.

ELLIOTT: It turns out that new slogan, Change You Deserve, was also used to market a popular antidepressant drug.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News, the Capitol.

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