Last weekend, I traveled to Mississippi's first congressional district, a bastion of Republican power that has been home to William Faulkner, Elvis Presley, and the scene of massive riots on the night James Meredith attempted to integrate the University of Mississippi. With the district in the midst of a hotly contested special election campaign, I probed the impact of a million-dollar Republican strategy to attack the insurgent Democratic candidate, Travis Childers, by linking him to Barack Obama and Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
(See one of the GOP ads here).
After following Childers on the campaign trail, then attending a rally of his Republican opponent, Greg Davis, it became clear to me that the GOP's strategy would fail miserably. On Tuesday, the Republicans' worst nightmare came true: Childers defeated Davis by a stunning 8 point margin.
Mississippi's First encompasses a working-class region reeling from the country's economic downturn. Voters there from both parties told me they were more concerned with bread and butter issues like gas and food prices than with whether Obama's supporters fundraised online for Childers, the issue exploited by the national GOP. Childers was the perfect candidate in this environment, running as a pro-life, pro-gun economic populist who opposed free trade and promised to take on big oil. I followed the candidate around a Piggly Wiggly supermarket, watching as he pointed shoppers to the whopping prices of milk and eggs, then indignantly blamed the White House for the price spike.
While the more than a dozen Republican voters I interviewed outside the Greg Davis rally insisted to me that their candidate represented "Mississippi Values" far better than his opponent, a key theme of the Republican attack ads, several complained that the ads had poisoned the campaign, and said they resented the GOP's nationalization of the election. However, Davis was to blame for this negative tone. Though he was a successful mayor of Southaven, a white flight suburb just south of Memphis, and was widely credited for the town's economic revitalization, he allowed Washington Republican groups like Freedom's Watch and the National Republican Campaign Committee to define his campaign, thereby distracting voters from his accomplishments.
Not only did Davis err by echoing the demagogic attacks in his stump speeches, he invited Dick Cheney to speak at his last campaign rally, a terrible reminder that he would be a tool of the Bush White House if sent to Washington. The failure of Cheney's last-minute GOTV appearance reflects just how tainted the national Republican brand has become.
At the same time, the Republican attack ads provoked a backlash among African-Americans who make up nearly one-quarter of Northern Mississippi's population. When I asked one African-American voter who she planned to vote for, she simply said, "Barack Obama." I asked her to clarify, and she explained that by linking Childers to Obama, the Republicans had made her even more enthusiastic about voting for Childers. To harness this backlash, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee distributed thousands of leaflets to black voters in Mississippi's first attacking Davis for his role in bringing a statue to Southaven of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Civil War hero who happened to found the Ku Klux Klan.
When I returned from Mississippi, I went straight to Capitol Hill, to the National Republican Congressional Committee, the nerve center of the attacks on Childers. The NRCC spent $1.27 million to destroy Childers -- 20% of its entire budget. After spending almost $3 million in its failed bid to hold three congressional seats in special elections this season, the NRCC is poorly positioned to make any impact this November. But the group's spokesman, Ken Spain, suggested that with little else in its arsenal, his group would stick with its ill-fated strategy of nationalizing local elections.
The Lost Cause lives on.