Earlier this month, voters in my old backyard of Baton Rouge, La., fired the second warning shot aimed at Republicans desperate enough to use the politics of fear to win congressional races. Like the first one fired two months ago from former House Speaker Denny Hastert's constituents in Illinois, this warning from my friends on the bayou apparently fell on deaf ears.
Now the good folks in north Mississippi just fired their shot — and it wasn't across the bow. It may have sunk the USS House GOP battleship for 2008. And good riddance.
Losing Hastert's seat in Illinois' 14th congressional district was hard enough for Republicans to swallow. Watching newly elected Democratic Congressman Don Cazayoux win in Baton Rouge two months later, a seat held by the GOP for more than 30 years, had them gulping with fear. Now they have lost Mississippi's 1st congressional district — one of the most solidly Republican seats in America.
With the November elections coming fast and furious over the horizon, losing three consecutive ruby-red districts is simply catastrophic.
The stunning win by Democratic Congressman-elect Travis Childers over Republican Greg Davis was a shot heard around the world of politics, loud enough to send shockwaves into the heart of every Republican candidate for the House. This latest GOP thumping (in a seat that wasn't even supposed to be in play) is a clear signal that voters everywhere are rejecting the Republicans' special-interests-driven agenda. Voters are delivering a mandate for change and a new direction in the nation's capitol.
Once again, Republicans tried to nationalize the House race by focusing their negative attacks on Barack Obama and Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Desperate in Mississippi, they stooped to conquer with a negative ad that tried to tie Childers to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Why try to link a conservative white Democrat with a northern liberal preacher? You guessed correctly: the old divisive politics of fear and guilt by associations.
For the third election in a row, the GOP was backslapped by voters too worried about having better jobs, more affordable health care and lower gas and grocery prices to fall for gutter politics. Intellectually bankrupt Republicans ignored these challenges in favor of throwing the kitchen sink — and, for good measure, the muck that laid at the bottom of the garbage disposal — at their opponent.
The bill for this failed strategy is pretty hefty. The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) burned through 20 percent of its cash. Its favorite 527 attack dog, Freedom's Watch, spent more than $460,000. In total, Republicans spent more than $1.7 million to lose a seat in a district that President Bush won easily, twice (by 62 percent in 2004 alone).
There are some big lessons to be learned from watching the Republicans go for broke in Mississippi and end up truly busted. First is that their cookie-cutter approach of trying to nationalize House races doesn't work. That dog just didn't hunt in Illinois. It didn't hunt in Louisiana, and it didn't even get up from its nap in Mississippi.
While the Republican attack machine was cranking out negative ads, Childers was reminding folks that he shares their values and will deliver the change they want in Washington. All politics is still local.
The next lesson from the Republican disaster in Mississippi is that the GOP brand is long past its expiration date. The Republicans pulled out all the stops to win in Mississippi. They rolled out an all-star line-up of GOP heavy-hitters, including Vice President Dick Cheney, Gov. Haley Barbour, former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee and former senator Trent Lott to help Greg Davis. Even President Bush, John McCain and Laura Bush recorded phone calls for Davis. But the bigger the helping of GOP that they served to voters, the more Mississippians turned away. It's no wonder that nearly 30 Republican House members decided to hang it up this year rather than face the voters in November with that big "R" next to their name.
But the biggest lesson coming from the Magnolia State this week is that strong Democratic candidates, who share the values of their districts and commit to bringing change to Washington, can win anywhere in America.
Unless the GOP can learn these lessons — and learn them fast — it might be best for them to just go to sleep and not wake up until 2009.
For the time being, the Democratic Party has plenty to keep themselves busy. Former Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards' surprise endorsement of Obama hours after Hillary Clinton's big win in West Virginia has captured the media's attention, and everyone is chattering about the party's need to unite and wondering exactly how damaging this infighting will be when November rolls around.
But as we talking heads chatter about, Childers' victory in Mississippi tells us to shut up and take note. This campaign season is not about fear. It will not be won by the politics of old. Voters know what matters to them, and they won't be swayed easily by transparent, partisan hack jobs. No longer can Democratic candidates be taken down by being labeled "progressive." In fact, it is a banner to champion with pride. Voters want progress.
Mississippi is a wake-up call to Republicans and Democrats alike. Republicans must come out of this realizing that they've lost touch with basic American experience and can no longer speak to, much less solve, the problems confronting Joe and Jane Smith. Democrats must take it as a warning not to get distracted and to listen to voters.
There are always a million issues to discuss — the war in Iraq, health care, global warming, the economy, pork-barrel spending, campaign finance reform, seating of delegations from Michigan and Florida, Obama's relationship with his former pastor, McCain's vicious temper. Some matter, some don't. The message everyone should take from Mississippi is to focus on the things that matter and leave everything else to the pundits and consultants. Talk to voters, and they will talk back. Talk at voters, and your party's headed toward a downfall.
Republicans learned that lesson well last Wednesday when they watched ruby-red turn crystal blue in Mississippi's 1st congressional district. Will they change strategy in time to avert election catastrophe? I hope so, otherwise it would make my job too easy. It's good competition that keeps me at the top of my game.
Come on, Karl, I know you've got game, but it's time you draft a new playbook.
Donna Brazile is a political commentator on CNN, ABC and NPR, contributing columnist to Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill, and former campaign manager for Al Gore