Republicans fear public has lost confidence
By Ken Dilanian, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON — Republicans must regain the confidence of Americans and recast their message to voters to avoid a catastrophe in the fall congressional elections, top GOP officials said Wednesday in a stark postmortem of a loss in rural Mississippi.
Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, who runs the committee tasked with helping elect Republicans to Congress, said Tuesday's defeat in Mississippi — after losing GOP seats in other special elections in Illinois and Louisiana — was evidence that "a large section of the American people doesn't have confidence in the Republican Party."
"What we've got right now is a deficiency in our message and a loss of confidence by the American people to do what we say we're going to do," Cole said in a conference call with reporters.
He said, "When you lose three of these in a row, you have to get beyond campaign tactics and take a long hard look: Is there something wrong with your product?"
Cole did not elaborate on potential defects, but Democrats had a ready answer.
"The Republican message is 'no, veto, and status quo,' " said Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. He said Republicans couldn't win in Mississippi even though they poured $1 million into the race, sent Vice President Cheney to campaign and tried to link Democratic candidate Travis Childers to the controversy over Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama's former pastor.
Obama mentioned Childers' victory in a speech in Michigan. "This is a hard-core Republican seat, and they lost it by 8 points. They did everything they could. They ran ads with my face on it."
In a memo to GOP leaders posted on Politico's website, retiring Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., offered a blunt verdict: "The Republican brand is in the trash can. … If we were a dog food, they would take us off the shelf."
"This is as bad as it gets for any party," said David Wasserman, House editor of the Cook Political Report, which tracks each race. "I've never seen a more defeated tone." Nevertheless, Wasserman said, his analysis shows the Democrats will pick up far fewer districts than they did in the 2006 election, when they gained 31 seats. He estimates the Democrats will gain five to 10 seats in the fall. "Democrats won most of the low-hanging fruit in 2006," he said.
Democratic leaders, not surprisingly, have a different view. They hope to capitalize on their winning formula in Mississippi and Louisiana, where their candidates' cultural conservatism played well.
"This clearly is a sign that there is no congressional district that is safe for Republican candidates who are following in the Bush shadow," said Van Hollen, whose committee has $44.3 million on hand, compared with $7.2 million for Cole's National Republican Congressional Committee.
Davis called the atmosphere for House Republicans "the worst since Watergate and is far more toxic than the fall of 2006."
House Republicans met with Cole in the Capitol to sift through the ashes of defeat in Mississippi's 1st District, which became vacant when Republican Roger Wicker was appointed to the Senate to replace retiring Republican Trent Lott. House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio called the result "a wake-up call." But there is no consensus on how to fix it.
Former speaker Newt Gingrich has urged House Republicans to come out with a series of dramatic proposals, including a moratorium on congressionally directed spending items known as earmarks. His ideas were not widely embraced.
Boehner is rolling out an "American Families Agenda" this week focusing on national security, tax cuts, balancing the budget and boosting domestic oil production.