Special election races for Congress have arguable value as bellwethers for upcoming general elections. Mostly these races get decided on local issues rather than national themes, as in Louisiana, where the Republicans ran a lousy candidate, considered the only person who could have lost the seat. They do demonstrate the strength of national party efforts, though, and when one party loses three special elections in districts previously thought safe, that sends a message — and rightly has Republicans worried about their chances in November:

A Democrat won the race for a GOP-held congressional seat in northern Mississippi yesterday, leaving the once-dominant House Republicans reeling from their third special-election defeat of the spring.

Travis Childers, a conservative Democrat who serves as Prentiss County chancery clerk, defeated Southaven Mayor Greg Davis by 54 percent to 46 percent in the race to represent Mississippi’s 1st Congressional District, which both parties considered a potential bellwether for the fall elections.

Democrats said the results prove that they are poised for another round of big gains in the November general elections, and they attacked the Republican strategy of tying Democrats to Sen. Barack Obama, the front-runner for the party’s presidential nomination, saying it had failed for a second time in 10 days in the Deep South. Democrat Don Cazayoux won the special election for a GOP-held House seat in Louisiana on May 3. …

The Childers victory was the latest setback suffered by Republicans, who began the string of defeats in special elections when Democrat Bill Foster claimed the seat of former House speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) in March.

President Bush won Mississippi’s 1st District by 25 percentage points four years ago, and Roger Wicker (R) won reelection with 66 percent of the vote in 2006. Wicker was appointed earlier this year to the Senate seat vacated by Trent Lott, who quit just one year into his six-year term to become a corporate lobbyist.

Why the panic? Even heavily Republican districts have given the GOP a slap in the face. Not even attempts to tie Democratic candidates to Barack Obama — unconvincing attempts at that — brought Republicans to the polls for the special elections. Democrats out-motivated, out-organized, and out-performed Republicans. And with a huge gap in fundraising between the DCCC and the NRCC, that appears to presage the general election in many more districts.

The lack of motivation comes from a disgust with a Republican Party that still hasn’t learned why it lost the majority in 2006. They lost those mid-term elections not because voters stopped supporting conservative principles, but because the House GOP stopped supporting conservative principles. Look at who won these special elections; they’re all Blue Dog Democrats, running in support of conservative themes such as gun rights. Now look at the Republicans who last held those seats, such as Hastert and Wicker — Republicans who spent other people’s money on waste and personal ambition.

Did the House GOP caucus take a hard line on pork-barrel spending or adopt policies to cut federal spending? No. Republican voters and conservative pundits begged the House and Senate caucuses to make dramatic breaks with the previous six years and adopt real conservative policies of fiscal responsibility and federalism. What did they do? They offered to stop earmarking only if Democrats followed suit, a deal everyone knew would never take place. Instead of appointing one single anti-pork activist to the House Appropriations Committee in Jeff Flake, they appointed Joe Bonner, a good Congressman but a well-known earmarker, and mostly because Flake’s anti-pork crusade irritates his colleagues.

John Boehner, the House Minority Leader, issued this warning:

The results in MS-01 should serve as a wake-up call to Republican candidates nationwide. As I’ve said before, this is a change election, and if we want Americans to vote for us we have to convince them that we can fix Washington. Our presidential nominee, Senator McCain, is an agent of change; candidates who hope to succeed must show that they’re willing and able to join McCain in a leading movement for reform. We need to stop wasteful Washington spending, fight and win the war on terror, and stop the largest tax increase in history. That is truly the change the American people deserve — and that is a message on which we can succeed.

Unfortunately, the Republicans have to take action to build credibility as reformers. Every step of the way between 2006 and now, they have chosen as a group to go in the opposite direction. The failure to appoint one single reformer to the lion’s den of wasteful spending shows that the GOP never learned its lesson from 2006, and now will suffer even greater consequences in 2008.

Get ready for the deluge. The next Republican leadership group had better learn the lesson of 2008 a lot more quickly than two years after the fact.

Update: It was Joe Bonner who got appointed to Appropriations and is an earmarker.  Jack Kingston was pushing Flake for the job.  My apologies to Rep. Kingston.