Can McCain overcome the G.O.P. brand?
House Republicans lose a third seat in special elections, as voters signal desire for change.
Washington and Chicago
A day after the Republican Party suffered its third straight loss in special congressional races for normally safe GOP seats, the political aftershocks are still reverberating – and heading right to the heart of the presidential race.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Republicans are reeling over Tuesday's 54-46 percent loss of a long-held Mississippi congressional seat to a Democrat, in a district that President Bush won in 2004 with 62 percent of the vote. Political analysts note that the Democrats ran the stronger candidate – a pro-gun, anti-abortion conservative named Travis Childers – but the loss provides yet more evidence of the depth of anti-Republican sentiment among voters.
At the presidential level, if the Democrats were about to nominate someone who runs strong among white working-class voters, the race would be over. But by all appearances, they're not. And so John McCain, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, still has a fighting chance in November.
Barack Obama, the likely Democratic nominee even after his massive loss to Hillary Rodham Clinton Tuesday in West Virginia, will have his work cut out for him when it's time to reunite the party for the general election campaign.
Still, there's no doubt that the "R" (for Republican) after Senator McCain's name is toxic, with President Bush's job approvals in the 20s and more than 80 percent of voters saying the country is headed in the wrong direction.
"I do believe that the damage to the GOP brand is a burden on McCain," says Stuart Rothenberg, editor of a nonpartisan political newsletter.
In recent weeks, McCain has benefited from the Democrats' protracted nomination battle, with most of the media attention going to the party's internal divisions and candidate arguments. The Arizona senator has been able to campaign with little public scrutiny.
McCain may be at his high-water mark right now, says Mr. Rothenberg. In fact, Senator Obama's continuing struggle to attract white working-class voters means McCain has a chance. "If [Obama] didn't have a problem with them, I'm not sure we would even be following this," he says.
For now, though, Obama still faces the dogged challenge of Senator Clinton for the nomination, who by all appearances will remain in the race through the end of primary season in June, even though the math works almost insurmountably in Obama's favor. In winning West Virginia by a 41-point margin, she made a net gain of 12 delegates (20 for Clinton, 8 for Obama). As of Wednesday morning, Obama leads in the delegate count 1,883 to 1,717 out of 2,025 needed to secure the nomination, according to the Associated Press.