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GOP’s cold comfort

In just two years, Republicans have lost 55 House seats and at least 13 Senate seats (with Minnesota still undecided). It’s been a rough slog, so victories this past week must’ve felt like deliverance to the wounded right. It’s too bad that the wins just confirm what Nov. 4 signaled: that the GOP is a rump regional party, cornered in the Southeast.

On Tuesday of last week, Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss easily won a runoff for his Georgia seat.

The following Saturday in Louisiana, Republicans defeated corrupt Democrat William Jefferson in an indigo-blue New Orleans congressional district, while a second, the 4th, seemed poised to tip for the GOP.

Republicans are giddy. Republican National Committee Chairman Mike Duncan crowed after the Louisiana runoffs, “Coupled with the recent Senate win in Georgia, it’s clear that Republicans still know how to win elections as we continue to build a solid foundation for the elections in 2010.”

The past couple of years have been tough, so perhaps we should forgive Republicans for trying to salvage some modicum of pride as they cling desperately to the fiction that this is a “center-right” nation, and that Democratic gains were achieved only on the strength of Barack Obama’s charisma and coattails. But a closer look reveals that last week’s victories are little but cold comfort for the GOP.

In Georgia — one of the few red-trending states this decade — Chambliss was forced into an embarrassing runoff by failing to win a majority on Election Day. While he won the runoff handily, the Georgia Senate seat should never have been competitive at all. Most prognosticators considered this a “safe Republican” seat throughout the entire cycle.

Like Georgia, Louisiana has been trending heavily red the past several cycles — a trend exacerbated by the exodus of African-Americans from the state post-Katrina. The state’s 4th congressional district was won by President Bush 59-40 in 2004, and has given Republicans landslide victory margins at the House level for the past decade. Again, it shouldn’t have been close. But Republican John Fleming led Democrat Paul Carmouche by a mere 356 votes at press time.

In LA-02, Republican Joseph Cao became the nation’s first Vietnamese-American to serve in Congress by defeating incumbent Democrat William Jefferson in the nation’s 28th most Democratic district. Seems pretty impressive, until you factor in that Jefferson was an indicted crook caught with $90,000 in bribe money stashed in his freezer. Even then, it took a low-turnout runoff election to oust him. Cao is a dead man walking — he either engages in that time-honored Louisiana tradition of switching parties, or he suffers the same fate as Michael Patrick Flanagan, the Republican who toppled indicted Chicago Rep. Dan Rostenkowski in 1994. Once the crook was out of office, Chicago voters got rid of their useful idiot two years later.

Ultimately, special elections are funny beasts, and it’s dangerous to read trends into them. In early 2004, Democratic special-election victories in South Dakota with Stephanie Herseth and Kentucky with Ben Chandler supposedly gave Democrats momentum heading into that fall. Instead, they suffered losses. Similarly, the GOP’s strong performance in the 2007 Massachusetts 5th district special election clearly didn’t mean the party was bouncing back from its 2006 drubbing.

The GOP can claim a “solid foundation” for the 2010 cycle, but it appears that foundation requires 1) running in the Deep South, and/or 2) running against indicted crooks who stuff $90,000 in their freezers. If that’s what it takes for Republicans to be competitive, Democrats have little to fear.

Moulitsas is founder and publisher of Daily Kos .