The hottest election tonight is not taking place in West Virginia (a state that hasn't staged a truly consequential presidential primary since 1960, when Jack Kennedy knocked out Hubert Humphrey, reputedly with some help from mob money). Rather, you'd be better advised tonight to keep an eye on the northernmost congressional district in the state of Mississippi.
That's where you can best gauge the woeful status of the Republican party in the dying days of the Bush era.
Consider what's going on tonight in Mississippi's First Congressional District. A special election is in the works, a competition between Republican Greg Davis (a local mayor) and Democrat Travis Childers (a chancery clerk and businessman) to replace Roger Wicker, who was recently elevated to the U.S. Senate, replacing the retired Trent Lott.
Big deal, right? In normal times, this kind of musical chairs would be a slam dunk for the GOP; in normal times, Republican candidate Greg Davis would win this special election in a yawn. After all, Wicker won his seat seven straight times, with never less than 63 percent of the vote. President Bush carried this Mississippi district four years ago with 62 percent of the vote. The district has been a safe Republican seat ever since the heady days of the Newt Gingrich conservative revolution.
And yet, the GOP has felt compelled to treat even this race as if it was a four-alarm fire. Lott and Wicker and Mike Huckabee have all been flooding the zone. So has Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, Barbour's lieutenant governor, senior Mississippi senator Thad Cochran, and even Dick Cheney (this is presumably one of the few congressional districts in America where Cheney actually might be an asset). Meanwhile, back in Washington, the GOP's cash-strapped House campaign committee has felt compelled to spend in excess of $1.3 million on direct mail and TV ads, just to prop up Davis.
If the Republicans need to scramble this way, to save an ostensibly safe congressional seat in a deeply-red southern district, consider what this says about the prevailing national mood - and about the GOP's dim November prospects for trimming their current House minority status (199 Rs, 235 Ds).
They have reason to feel a tad panicky. Childers, a Democrat with conservative values, has been showing a lot of strength. Under Mississippi rules, there was already a first-round special election last month; Childers finished on top, beating Davis and some minor candidates - a stunning result in itself - and nearly attracted 50 percent of the total vote. If the Democrat had hit 50 percent (he came within 400 votes), he would have won the seat outright, with no need for tonight's runoff with the number-two finisher.
What worries Republicans is that the Mississippi situation so closely mirrors recent special congressional elections in Louisiana and Illinois - both of which were embarrassments to the GOP. Ten days ago, Democrat Don Cazayoux won a Louisiana congressional seat that had been held by the Republicans for 20 years, in a district that had supported Bush with 59 percent of the vote in 2004 and 55 percent of the vote in 2000. And back on March 8, as I have previously noted, Democrat Bill Foster won the Illinois congressional seat formerly held for two decades by departed GOP House Speaker Dennis Hastert, and by two Republicans prior to him.
Some Republican spinners have come up with excuses for the losses in Louisiana and Illinois - the GOP candidates in those races were flawed, it's all their fault, and thus the defeats are no barometer of the national party's fortunes - but the fact is, those two seats are normally so safe that any Republican with functioning brain cells should be able to win them.
Yet the task proved difficult, because of the political landscape. Bush is an albatross, the war is a drag, the economy is a burden, and Republicans are still viewed as somewhat lacking on the ethics front (latest example: "family values" conservative congressman Vito Fossella of Staten Island has been outed for having two families). It's instructive right now that, in the congressional matchups for November as measured in the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, a generic Democratic candidate beats a generic Republican candidate by roughly 15 percentage points - roughly the same spread that pollsters recorded on the eve of the November '06 elections, when the GOP wound up losing both chambers.
And special congressional elections typically foreshadow the main event in November; this happened in 1974, when some early Republican losses turned out to be a portent of massive party losses in the immediate aftermath of the Watergate scandal. And it happened early in 1994, this time to the other party, when Bill Clinton's Democrats coughed up a few safe seats in special elections that foreshadowed the Gingrich revolution in November.
What also bears watching tonight is whether the GOP's tactic for retaining the Mississippi seat turns out to be effective. Lacking much of anything good to say, the Republicans are falling back on their old reliable: painting Democrat Childers as a stooge of the liberals...and, in this case, casting Barack Obama in the role of bogeyman. Childers has actually never met Obama, or sought his help, but linking the pair might be the GOP's best option in this conservative district - unless the tactic winds up energizing African-Americans, who reportedly comprise 26 percent of the district's population. It should be noted that, two weeks ago in Louisiana, the GOP tried to tie Cazayoux to Obama - and Cazayoux won anyway.
So watch this race. A Republican loss in Mississippi would be devastating; a win would be a massive relief, although the party should never have to expend so much money and manpower to salvage a seat on its home turf. To paraphrase Frank Sinatra: If they can't make it there, can they make it anywhere?