How Obama Affects Down-Ticket Races

Mississippi's 1st Congressional District is an unlikely political hotbed. Reliably Democratic territory for a century, the northeastern corner of the Magnolia State went Republican in 1994 and has stayed that way. In the last decade, incumbent Roger Wicker has routinely cruised to victory with margins of 30 percent. But when Gov. Haley Barbour appointed Wicker to fill out the unexpired term of retiring GOP Sen. Trent Lott last December, things got competitive. In a special election held late last month, conservative Democrat Travis Childers and Republican Greg Davis were the top vote-getters, but neither captured the majority needed to clinch a victory. So the two are headed into a May 13 run-off that suddenly has both national congressional campaign committees focusing on Columbus, Tupelo and the surrounding counties.

The seat hasn't drawn such scrutiny simply because it might flip from red to blue. It's also attracting attention because the Davis campaign and the National Republican Congressional Committee have run ads linking Childers, who touts his pro-life, pro-gun credentials, to Barack Obama. "[Childers] took Obama's endorsement over our conservative values," a Davis ad claims, pointing out that "when Obama's pastor cursed America, blaming us for 9/11, Childers said nothing." An NRCC ad calls Obama's voting record "the most liberal voting record in the U.S. Senate."

"I see the kind of issue differences you want, experience differences you want" with an Obama candidacy, says NRCC Chairman Tom Cole, a representative from Oklahoma, about his organization's ad. "I think that will hurt Democrats down ballot."

It wasn't supposed to be this way. At the outset of the campaign, Hillary Clinton was thought to be more of a liability in down-ticket races; she would presumably ignite deep-seated Republican distaste for the former First Lady. Obama was supposed to be the fresh-faced newcomer without any baggage. As one former senior aide to President Bush told NEWSWEEK in January 2006, "He's scarier than she is because nobody says a bad word about him." But after hitting a rough patch in recent weeks, Obama's campaign seemed less scary--and the GOP started trying to tie congressional Democratic candidates to him, in hopes of dragging them down. "There's no question he's an extremely attractive personality and is a very articulate person," says Cole. "But there's not much experience there and there's a decided bent to the left."

The ads were cut prior to Obama's triumphant Tuesday night, when he won handily in North Carolina and nearly upset Clinton in Indiana. Those showings ratcheted up pressure on Clinton to exit the race--and could conceivably alter the local dynamics of his campaign. Cole's spokesperson, who was contacted anew Wednesday morning, declined an opportunity for the NRCC chair to amend the comments he made in an interview prior to the primaries. And in some ways, Obama's fresh burst of momentum may only stoke the GOP's determination to yoke down-ticket Democrats to a presidential contender they see as excessively liberal--and weak among the kinds of white, blue-collar voters who could be key to the outcome of the general election this fall.

Cole's group used the same tactic this past weekend in Louisiana's 6th District, where there was a special election between Democrat Don Cazayoux and Republican Woody Jenkins (Cazayoux won the race by 3 percent). The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee says the ads failed. "I think their strategy fell on its face," says DCCC Chairman Chris Van Hollen, a representative from Maryland. "What they did was try to test-drive this idea of nationalizing the races behind national political figures and that crashed and burned." The NRCC points to polling showing that Cazayoux's lead dropped significantly in the days leading up to the vote. In a press release following Cazayoux's win, the NRCC characterized their numbers as a harbinger of the "potential toxicity of an Obama candidacy and the possible drag he could have down-ballot this fall." Both national campaigns emphasize that special congressional elections do not pivot around these ads, which are one element in a campaign centered on local politics.

Now that Obama's campaign has regained its mojo after Tuesday's primaries, how much of a drag will he be in Mississippi's 1st District? "His liberalism puts at risk some of the voters that Democrats need as well as the ones he attracts, your classic Reagan Democrat voters who tend to be socially conservative, tough on defense," says Cole. "Those people, I think they have some questions about Obama. It's not clear to me whether or not seniors, who tend to put an emphasis on experience … will find him as attractive once we get down to decision time." Not all Republicans are on board with the tactic, including Newt Gingrich. In a May 6 column, he argued that the Cazayoux-Jenkins race in Louisiana was a failure for the Republicans and "if Republicans try to run an anti-Obama, anti-Reverend Wright, or [if Senator Clinton wins], anti-Clinton campaign, they are simply going to fail."

The Childers campaign, which, citing their busy schedule, couldn't arrange for an interview with the candidate, seemed on edge when the Davis ad first rolled out. Its leaders released a response ad criticizing Republicans for making claims about politicians that Childers has never met. Childers, speaking to a television reporter, disputed claims that Obama ever endorsed his campaign. But about a week out from the election, the campaign may not need to be so worried. Childers's pollster, John Anzalone, hasn't seen an erosion in the white vote and is encouraged by the exit polls that came out of North Carolina, where Obama was picking up 30 to 40 percent of the white vote and scoring high with independents. "After putting up this Obama and Wright stuff, we've still led the special election consistently," he says, adding that the ads may even cause a backlash among black voters, who make up 27 percent of the district population. "I think you might see them turning out in higher numbers." Richard Forgette, chairman of the political science department at University of Mississippi, agrees. "I think that to the extent to which Obama is emerging as the Democratic nominee, it's going to elevate the turnout for African Americans," he says.

The DCCC says the ads are not a cause for worry. Obama easily carried the Mississippi primary and Van Hollen dismisses the attacks as predictable fare in a congressional race that aligns with a presidential election. "Early on, when we thought Clinton would be the nominee, they began trying to link candidates with Senator Clinton," he says. "Now they think Obama's going to be the nominee, so they're trying to link him with certain candidates. I think it's going to be a failure because the Republicans are on the wrong side of important national issues." Anzalone says he doesn't expect much of a drag effect in a contest so far removed from the presidential race. "In these special elections, there's less of an effect because it's going on a strange date and therefore people aren't going out to vote against Obama," he says. "Obama is not on the ticket." Looking forward to November, he still thinks the conventional wisdom holds: Clinton could damage Democratic candidates, while Obama could lift them by bringing new voters into the fold. "In the end, quite frankly, she's much more divisive [than Obama]," says Anzalone. "Her impressions are set in stone, the concrete has settled and things are not changing. Those people who have unfavorable ratings for her are not going to change."

No matter who wins on Tuesday, or how well the Republican advertising works, the outcome of this election will only cast a small shadow: Wicker's term ends in January 2009, so the victor next Tuesday will be back before the voters in November next year. The residents of the 1st District might be living in a political battleground just a little bit longer.