This week’s special election in a formerly blood red Republican district in Georgia had a lot of people talking. It came a week after another special election in Kansas that saw an unknown Democrat come within seven points of winning a district that had voted for Donald Trump by 30 percentage points in November. But it’s not just one or two Congressional seats that were at stake – that’s only relevant for the people of the Sixth Congressional District of Georgia and the Fourth Congressional District of Kansas. The real thesis everyone is trying to examine is the mood of the national electorate in the early days of Trump. With that in mind, let’s cut through the spin and examine what both parties should really be thinking, shall we?
First off, after an early night scare that saw Ossoff holding a commanding lead, Republicans are crowing that everything is hunky-dory because Ossoff didn’t win the 50+1 outright necessary to secure the seat outright(he ended with 48.1%). They say Democrats tried to make it a referendum on Trump and more or less were unsuccessful because Ossoff couldn’t win on the spot. They are actually contending that Tuesday’s results actually put them in a strong position to win the runoff in June. No no, no, no, no.
First, I won’t disabuse the GOP of their “Ossoff didn’t hit 50%” talking point because, technically it’s true – that’s just a fact. Some Democrats, as told by a <em>Politico</em> headline, are even reportedly wondering, “When do we start winning again?” The answer to both the Republican statement and the Democrats question is, this is winning. At least, it’s by no means losing.
Ossoff came tantalizingly close to winning Tom Price’s former Republican stronghold without a runoff
Consider. Mitt Romney took 61% in 2012 and Tom Price won 62% in his last re-election. This district, or at least descendants of the district, have not elected a Democrat to Congress since 1976 and it was the base of Newt Gingrich. Now Trump winning the district 48-46% led some to say that the downturn was due to “never Trumpers” and that all is well for the GOP up and down the ballot. The problem is, Ossoff and the other three Democrat taking a combined 49% sustains the fact that, at least with Trump in the White House, the district is a battleground and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. Look at it another way: the Republican candidate would have won in a walk in either district had Hillary Clinton won the White House. Almost no one would dare contend otherwise.
Now, I’m not suggesting that now that because Handel has won the Republican nomination that she is going to win in June. Nor am I saying she won’t. But thinking it’s a foregone conclusion that she will is simply absurd.
For starters, Handel has consolidated the Republican nomination yes but in no way has she consolidated the Republican vote. The field was a donnybrook – eight candidates. The Club For Growth bitterly opposed her and despite President Trump’s vow to help her, it’s not clear that the wounds will heel among rank and file so easily. Second, Ossoff’s GOP supporters are so energized that it’s foolish to think they will be less so as the runoff nears. Third, Trump will still be president in two months so anyone who thinks Trump won’t weigh in the minds of voters are non-thinkers. Most important, though Democrats did not win, the Democratic vote was 49%. Republicans took 51% but that simply signals a close race and that minds can be swayed. After all, the fact that 49% of voters opted for a Democratic candidate this week means that in all probability, 49% of the electorate will do so on the day of the runoff. And while both sides can expand the vote and try to lure out voters who didn’t cast a ballot this past week, simple arithmetic leaves the GOP with an uncomfortably small margin of error.
Jim Thompson came within seven percentage points of picking up a Republican stronghold in Kansas</strong>
Image via Sedgwick County Democrats
Finally, what do these special elections mean for the future? It means that Democrat have eaten away at the huge edge Republicans have enjoyed as recently as November in all parts of the country in districts Trump carried bigly (like Kansas-4)and not (like Georgia-6). There are many other districts – try 23, that Clinton carried but that still sent Republicans to Congress. That said, if you’re a Ryan Costello, Jeff Denham, or even a Pete Sessions, these elections should leave you worried and then some. Similarly, there are a sizable number of districts that opted for both Obama and Trump that could be up for grabs – districts such as Frank LoBiondo’s or Fred Upton’s or Pat Meehan’s. More ominously, given how Republicans needed Trump’s 30 point victory in Kansas to hang on to the seat by 7, Republicans might not be so lucky in districts that Trump carried by say, 15 (Claudia Tenney, Joe Barton, Lloyd Smucker, I’m looking at you).
I won’t say that the winner of the June runoff between Ossoff and Handel is of secondary importance. But even if Democrats fall slightly short, the energy of the Democrats coupled with he fact that the president’s approval still trails his disapproval makes it fairly easy to see that at this point, 2018 is looking like a very fruitful year for the party out of power.