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In congressional races, Republicans are losing ground

GOP leaders urge a new agenda after several key losses.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 12, 2008

Rich Clabaugh

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The prospect of a special-election loss in yet another seat this week is fueling calls for House Republicans to radically shift course – or face losses in November that could lock their party in the minority for a generation.

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Strike one: A Democrat wins the seat vacated by former House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R) of Illinois, a March 8 stunner.

Strike two: A Democrat wins a May 3 vote in a Louisiana congressional district that President Bush in 2004 carried by a 19-point margin.

Tuesday's runoff election in Mississippi's First Congressional District could be strike three. Democrat Travis Childers already nearly defeated Republican Greg Davis in an April 22 special election to replace GOP Rep. Roger Wicker, falling just 410 votes short of a majority. The idea that a Democrat could win the runoff has shocked national party leaders into overdrive.

"This seat is a very important one. It's been in conservative hands for a long time, and we'd hate to see the liberals gain control," said Vice President Dick Cheney in a phone interview released by the White House. The vice president is headlining a get-out-the-vote rally for Mr. Davis in Mississippi on Monday.

Citing recent special-election losses, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich issued a "Plea to Republicans" last week. "Without change we could face a catastrophic election this fall," he wrote in the conservative weekly Human Events. "Without change the Republican Party in the House could revert to the permanent minority status it had from 1930 to 1994."

This week House Republican leader John Boehner, who has been predicting a tough election for months, launches the long rollout of a new messaging campaign that has been dubbed by some party aides a "rebranding exercise."

For Republicans, the past 15 months have been mainly about "defining the Democrats," he says, citing their "very liberal agenda" and broken promises – especially the "Pelosi premium," a reference to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's failure to deliver on a promise to bring down high gasoline prices.

But the need now is for Republicans to get clear on their own agenda for change, says Representative Boehner. "While we'll continue to hold Democrats accountable, I think it's also time for us to define ourselves, in terms of what we would do if the American people would honor us with the majority," he said in a May 8 briefing .