Some of my more disapproving colleagues in the media regularly remind the rest of us that there is only one way to look at any politician: down!

Mark Shields

Mark Shields

I disagree. Let me state at the outset: I like a lot of politicians, and few of them more than I like Tom Davis, the shrewd and savvy Republican who chose last year to voluntarily leave the House of Representatives after seven terms of representing his suburban district in northern Virginia.

In addition to being good company and even capable of laughing at himself, Davis knows as much about U.S. politics as anybody I talk to. For example, over a recent lunch, he offered as proof that Republicans have lost “the inner suburbs” and increasingly “become a rural party, a Southern Party” the facts that Democrat Barack Obama carried 78 of the 100 U.S. counties with the highest education levels, while Republican John McCain carried 88 of the nation’s 100 counties with the lowest education levels.

While most political coverage in this off-year centers on the New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial races, Davis devotes his attention and efforts to a Nov. 3 special House election in the 23rd District in northern New York, way up near the U.S.-Canada border. The district has sent only Republicans to Washington for the past 137 years, but Obama handily defeated McCain there.

The Republican House nominee, state Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava, a moderate on gay rights and pro-choice on abortion, has become the target of national anti-tax group Club for Growth and prominent social conservatives, including 2008 vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin. They are backing Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman.

This nasty Republican civil war benefits Democrat Bill Owens, for whom Obama is raising funds.

Davis is strongly supporting Scozzafava. He knows that a Democratic win would leave Republicans even less competitive in the northeastern United States, with only two House members in New York and all six New England states. Davis doesn’t conceal his argument with those “on the far right like (the Family Research Council’s) Tony Perkins and Rush Limbaugh (who) want a private club with an admissions test. They don’t want a political party which is, by definition, a coalition.”

By Davis’ lights, 2010 ought to be a good Republican year. There is a natural cycle when after a change-of-party presidential election, the president’s congressional party is often punished in the first midterm election for the sins of the new president, whose name is not on the ballot.

President Ronald Reagan — two years before he would win re-election carrying 49 states — saw his Republican Party lose 26 House seats. In 1994, President Bill Clinton — two years before he would become the first Democrat since FDR to win a second White House term — was powerless to stop the loss of 52 Democratic House seats.

Davis lists the Democrats’ other problems: In 2006 and 2008, Democrats “overperformed” by winning traditionally Republican House seats where Republican voters were discouraged by party scandals and the Bush presidency. “The energy source the Democrats twice used to plug into — George W. Bush — is gone.” And midterm reaction votes, he points out, are always stronger against the party “when that same party controls both the Congress and the White House.” Witness the Democrats’ defeats in 1978 and 1994, and the Republicans’ thumping in 2006.

What concerns Davis is “the real disconnect between the Republican Party and the nation,” as reflected in the blood feud in the New York special election. Davis knows the country is changing and believes passionately that his party must change, as well, because, in the final analysis, politics is a matter of addition, not of subtraction.

Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.