With John McCain as their candidate, Republicans are making the best of a bad political situation. But even with his considerable personal appeal and maverick image, there are fresh signs that the country’s fatigue with the G.O.P. label will be too much even for Mr. McCain to overcome this fall.
The latest evidence is a special election last Saturday for a House seat in the Baton Rouge area in which, for the third time in as many months, a normally reliable Republican Congressional district has opted for the Democratic candidate in a special election.
In isolation, all three results could be explained away. In Louisiana’s 6th District, where conservative Democrat Don Cazayoux was elected last weekend by the same voters who handed George W. Bush 59 percent of the vote in 2004, the result could be chalked up to the considerable personal liabilities of the Republican nominee, a polarizing perennial candidate who has run multiple losing campaigns under both party banners since the late 1970s.
Similarly, Democrat Travis Childers, who led the field last month in the preliminary special election to fill Mississippi’s 1st District seat (finishing inches short of the simple majority that would have obviated a runoff), could be said to have benefited mainly from geography: He hails from the heart of the district, while his Republican foe is the mayor of a town that many Mississippians see as practically an extension of Memphis.
And the victory of Democrat Bill Foster in the 14th District of Illinois, where former House Speaker Dennis Hastert’s resignation necessitated a March special election, could also be framed as a referendum on the lack of appeal of the G.O.P. nominee, who entered with three losing statewide campaigns under his belt.
But the pattern is hard to ignore. Each of these districts is staunchly Republican, and each voted overwhelmingly for Mr. Bush in ’04. (At 11 points, Mr. Bush’s margin in Illinois’ 14th District was the closest of the bunch.) That the Democrats have now claimed two of them—with a third pending in a runoff in Mississippi—in the same year is powerful evidence that association with the G.O.P. is as toxic to a candidate’s political health now as it was in 2006.
If there is any good news here for Mr. McCain, it is that he’s not running for the House or Senate this year. Because of the nature of the office they are seeking and the lack of media coverage (particularly in House contests), it is much tougher for candidates for these offices to break free of their party labels and to force voters to consider them as individuals. Personality counts for almost nothing in Congressional races, leaving candidates at the mercy of partisan trends and, perhaps, the coattails effect from the top of the ballot.
At the Congressional level, then, the recent special-election results portend disaster for the Republicans this year. Already, the party has been hit with a spate of retirements in marginal House districts, and G.O.P. Senate retirements have Democrats poised to pick up seats in Virginia, Colorado and New Mexico. And strong recruitment by Democrats and a massive fund-raising advantage have darkened the prospects of numerous G.O.P. House and Senate incumbents. Add to this a powerful Democratic tide, and 2008 could yield Congressional majorities for the Democrats that can withstand several down cycles.
But unlike the average Republican House candidate, Mr. McCain will at least have an opportunity to make most Americans overlook the “R” after his name. Virtually none of the Republicans who vied with Mr. McCain in the primaries were suited for this task, but Mr. McCain, thanks to his enduring reputation for “straight talk,” is.
At a certain point, though, you wonder: How much is too much for him to overcome? These should be heady days for the McCain campaign. Their candidate wrapped up the G.O.P. nomination more easily than anyone could have predicted, and unity within the party has not been as elusive as many forecasted. Meanwhile, the Democrats are locked in a primary that just won’t end. The likely nominee, Barack Obama, has been bloodied, and supporters of the likely loser, Hillary Clinton, are loudly threatening to stay home—or even to vote for Mr. McCain—should Mr. Obama secure the nomination.
And what has this all been worth for Mr. McCain? Not much—and maybe even less. A New York Times/CBS News poll released this Monday has him running 11 points behind Mr. Obama.
Granted, polls are a dime a dozen this year. But even on his best days, Mr. McCain can’t seem to break out of a statistical tie with Mr. Obama—or Mrs. Clinton, for that matter. Just like those House elections, it’s a trend that can’t be ignored.
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