Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Another kind of water torture

As forecast for weeks, Barack Obama lost the West Virginia primary on Tuesday, lost huge — by 41 percentage points, a bigger blowout than predicted. But other events make it important to keep that loss in perspective.

The steady timed-release delivery of superdelegates into the Obama campaign bloodstream continued Wednesday; University of Wisconsin-Madison student Awais Khaleel became the first superdelegate in the nation to announce his endorsement of Obama on YouTube. Khaleel recognized that Clinton’s win doesn’t alter the tidal delegate-count arithmetic accruing to Obama’s favor.

The other big event doesn’t favor Obama specifically so much as it enhances the chances of the Democrats to win in the fall regardless of who the nominee is.

Travis W. Childers, a Democratic challenger for a vacant Mississippi seat in the House of Representatives, defeated his Republican opponent, incumbent Rick Davis, in the First Congressional District — stronghold of GOP stalwart Trent Lott — despite Davis’ feverish attempts to adorn Childers with a Jeremiah Wright guilt-by-association necklace. It didn’t work: Childers won the seat, a historical lock for the GOP since Newt Gingrich’s Contract on America, by six percentage points.

Childers will have to make his case to keep the seat, which comes up for election in November. But his victory remains significant because of where it happened — in the deepest precincts of the once “solid South,” that bloc of Southern states that have for generations been conceded to conservatives. His win suggests that the solid South isn’t necessarily so solid for Republicans anymore.

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It’s also important because it’s the third Democratic victory in as many months in areas thought to be safe for the GOP. Earlier this month, Democrat Don Cazayoux won a Louisiana congressional seat held by the Republicans for 20 years, in a district that had backed President Bush with 59 percent of the vote in 2004 and 55 percent of the vote in 2000. In March, Democrat Bill Foster won the Illinois congressional seat formerly held for two decades by departed GOP House Speaker Dennis Hastert, and by two Republicans before Hastert.

For savvy observers, these aren’t just isolated incidents. “[S]pecial 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,” reports Dick Polman, veteran political reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

“It really does indicate that the Republican brand is badly damaged. John McCain can’t run the Republican brand, he’s got to run a different approach,” said former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, speaking Tuesday on MSNBC.

Thus, the slow congressional shift toward the Democrats — a kind of water torture at the polls — helps Obama make the case for his ability to redraw the electoral map, and for putting states in play that Democrats didn’t think they had a chance at winning. Until now.

While not exactly shrugging off the West Virginia defeat, Team Obama has been able to put it in its proper perspective. The fact that he lost West Virginia wasn’t a surprise; it’s been baked into various prognostications from the punditburo for weeks.

What’s more important is the drop-by-drop, delegate-by-delegate water torture of Clinton’s prospects for the nomination. One more drop fell today.

“You know I never give up,” Clinton said Tuesday after her win in the Mountain State. Fair enough. She may not quit the race, but with a literal handful of states remaining in this long campaign, it’s clear the race is about to quit her.

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