Can McCain overcome the G.O.P. brand?

House Republicans lose a third seat in special elections, as voters signal desire for change.

By , Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor , Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Brand expectations: GOP candidate Greg Davis (l.) was with Vice President Dick Cheney Monday in Southaven, Miss. Mr. Davis lost a special-election congressional race to Travis Childers (D) Tuesday.
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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.

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.

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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.

Obama is continuing to rack up superdelegates – party leaders and elected officials who can back whomever they want – at a faster clip than Clinton. In just the last few days alone, he has picked up the same number of superdelegates that she netted in pledged delegates in West Virginia, and he now leads her in the race for superdelegates.

Clinton persists in claiming that she is the stronger nominee to face McCain in the fall. But the math is likely to get even tougher for her May 20, when Kentucky and Oregon hold their primaries. Obama is expected to win Oregon handily, and Clinton is strong in Kentucky.

Then there are the "lost" delegates of Florida and Michigan, which held their primaries earlier than party rules allowed and have been stripped of their delegates. Clinton won both states, but Obama wasn't even on the ballot in Michigan.

Even if Florida were counted and she were to win Kentucky next week with 65 percent of the vote, Obama would still be ahead in the popular vote by 150,000 as long as he wins the remaining states in which he is leading by slim margins, says Gerald Pomper, a retired political science professor at Rutgers University. "Even if she were to win Oregon, which she's not trying to do, I don't think she'd have a chance at the nomination."

The Democratic Party's Rules and Bylaws Committee will meet on May 31 to try to solve the Michigan and Florida problem, and seat at least some of their delegates in a way that satisfies both Clinton and Obama.

If the Democrats can finish primary season with no major blowups, and an accommodation of Clinton that leaves her happy and supportive of the Democratic ticket – perhaps even with her on it as Obama's running mate – then the party can get to work uniting and taking advantage of the Republicans' deep vulnerabilities.

After Tuesday's loss in Mississippi – a special election to fill the seat of Rep. Roger Wicker – one GOP leader laid out the party's challenge.

"The political environment is such that voters remain pessimistic about the direction of the country and the Republican Party in general," congressional campaign committee chair Tom Cole said in a statement. "Therefore, Republicans must undertake bold efforts to define a forward-looking agenda that offers the kind of positive change voters are looking for. This is something we can do in cooperation with our presidential nominee, but time is short."

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