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Tactical breakdown

In the aftermath of their electoral drubbing in 2006, Republicans — desperate for a silver lining — tried to spin their losses by claiming that Democrats had won by adopting “conservative” positions on the issues.

The reality was far different, as voters elected unquestionably progressive stalwarts like Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) to the Senate that year. Montana’s Jon Tester (D) was an anti-Iraq war, pro-civil liberties economic populist. And if Virginia’s Jim Webb (D) was conservative, what the heck was he doing railing in The Wall Street Journal against “our society’s steady drift toward a class-based system” and the “hubris” and “arrogance” of “the nation’s most fortunate”?

Last week, Republicans once again struggled to explain a crushing defeat — this one an eight-point loss in Mississippi’s solidly Republican 1st congressional district. While recent special-election House losses in Illinois and Louisiana were at least partially explained by supposedly bad candidates and heavy Democratic spending, the MS-01 defeat was utterly inexcusable.  

Republican Greg Davis was a top-tier challenger who outraised and outspent his Democratic opponent Travis Childers by 2-1. All told, Republicans and their allies spent $2.6 million to the Democrats’ $2.2 million. Yet all it bought them was a 33-point reversal of Bush’s 25-point 2004 victory in that district.

So if it wasn’t the money, and it wasn’t the candidate, what else could it be?

Well, taking a page from their 2006 playbook, Republicans claimed Childers had hoodwinked voters by convincing them that he was, in fact, a conservative. “[W]e had somebody running as a Republican, pro-life, pro-gun, who wants to cut taxes, wants to control spending,” said NRCC Chairman Tom Cole (Okla.).

Nonsense.

Childers’s pro-gun stance is hardly notable in a Democratic Party that long ago abandoned a uniform stance on weapon ownership. And if “controlling spending” is a Republican trait, then why did Republican George W. Bush and his Republican Congress saddle the nation with record deficits and debt?

Sure, Childers’s stances on abortion (and immigration, as well) are further to the political right than that of most Democrats, but on the whole, he’s well within the Democratic mainstream. His focus through the election was on the terrible Bush economy, opposition to free trade deals, support for government-funded healthcare programs, protecting Social Security, eliminating subsidies to Big Oil, and getting our troops home from Iraq.

Republicans are furious, of course, because their typical anti-Democratic campaign no longer works. In addition to the usual “tax and spend!” bleats, the GOP worked feverishly to tie Childers to national Democratic leaders. One Davis ad claimed that Childers “took Obama’s endorsement over our conservative values.” An NRCC ad warned that “if Travis Childers ever gets elected, he’ll vote to keep the liberal House Speaker from San Francisco, Nancy Pelosi, in power.”

But the attacks on Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright backfired, energizing the district’s significant black electorate while doing nothing to gin up white resentment. Ultimately, neither Wright nor the city of San Francisco really mattered to everyday Mississippians in a time of economic distress and war. And with Childers effectively taking guns and abortion off the table, Republicans had nothing but the “R” next to Davis’s name to run on. In years past, in this district, that “R” would’ve been enough for victory.

That’s no longer the case.

Moulitsas is founder and publisher of Daily Kos .