WASHINGTON - Stunned House Republicans vowed campaign changes yesterday and debated the wisdom of attacking Democratic presidential front-runner Barack Obama in congressional races after their third-straight election defeat in once-friendly territory.
"The political atmosphere is the worst since Watergate and far more toxic than the fall of 2006 when we lost 30 seats," Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia wrote the leadership in a blunt memo.
"Clearly, I think we've got to do a better job," going into the November elections, said the Republican leader, Rep. John Boehner, one day after Democrat Travis Childers won a Mississippi congressional seat, which had been in Republican hands since the 1994 landslide that swept the GOP into power.
Several lawmakers and aides said a change was possible but far from certain at the National Republican Congressional Committee, where Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole is chairman. Party leaders said they were on the verge of distributing a campaign-season manifesto to their rank and file setting out conservative positions on taxes and other issues.
Mr. Davis, a former chairman of the campaign committee who is retiring at the end of this year, noted that polls show Americans overwhelmingly believe the country is headed down the wrong track, President Bush is unpopular, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee enjoyed a cash advantage of $44 million to $7 million as of March 31.
Mr. Childers' victory occurred a week after Rep. Don Cazayoux won a House seat in the Baton Rouge area that had been in Republican hands for three decades.
During the winter, Rep. Bill Foster, a Democrat, won an election in Illinois to succeed former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, a Republican who had been in Congress more than 20 years.
All three races were necessitated by resignations by incumbent Republicans.
Mr. Childers and Mr. Cazayoux ran as conservatives, but Republicans and their allies sought to link them to Mr. Obama in TV commercials. In both cases, some Republicans said the tactic appeared to backfire, prompting blacks to turn out in unexpectedly large numbers and vote for the Democrats.
"We're not going to be able to scare people into voting Republican by being against Barack Obama. You have to have a relevant agenda and a compelling reason to vote Republican," Rep. Chip Pickering (R., Miss.) said.
Yet other Republicans said Mr. Obama's record, which they describe as liberal, is fair game for the fall campaign.
"It's very legitimate, parts of his vision and his agenda that the American people need to be aware of," Rep. Adam Putnam of Florida, a member of the party leadership, said.
The cumulative effect of the loss of three seats in special elections was a blow to a party adjusting to its loss of power in the 2006 midterm elections.
"They are canaries in the coal mine, warning of far greater losses in the fall, if steps are not taken to remedy the current climate," Mr. Davis wrote.
Mr. Childers' victory leaves Republicans with 199 seats, compared with 236 for the Democrats.