President Donald Trump mocked Democrats for failing to win special congressional elections in Kansas and Georgia, but Republicans still have cause to worry about 2018 after their candidates fared worse than expected.
Dems failed in Kansas and are now failing in Georgia. Great job Karen Handel! It is now Hollywood vs. Georgia on June 20th.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 19, 2017
First, some good news for Democrats. Political newcomer Jon Ossoff on Tuesday won 48% of the vote in the traditionally conservative 6th District of Georgia against a large field of Republican foes, who split the vote. The bad news is that he failed to top 50% and will now have to face off in June against the top Republican vote getter in a one-on-one matchup that narrowly appears to favor the conservative candidate.
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Still, the competitive nature of the race indicates Democrats are energized in opposition to Trump. Just six months ago, Republican Tom Price easily won the district with 60% of the vote. He stepped down earlier this year to join the Trump administration.
Ossoff raised a lot of money from grass-roots Democrats, as did the Democratic candidate in Kansas. Other Democratic House candidates are faring well in the early fundraising wars, a budding trend that could make it harder for Republican incumbents to coast to re-election.
In Utah, for example, Democratic candidate Kathryn Allen has outraised five-term Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz by a whopping $400,000 in the heavily conservative part of the state southeast of Salt Lake City. Chaffetz on Wednesday said he would not run for re-election.
‘While special elections do have some predictive power, a simple analysis of special elections back to 1970 shows a fairly weak relationship between special elections and the following midterm election results.’
That is the sort of political environment that could spell trouble for the Republican majority in the House in 2018.
Still, it is too early to draw firm conclusions. Special elections are few and far between, and they don’t offer a big enough sample size to accurately predict the result of future U.S. elections.
Republicans poured a bunch of money into two New York congressional races in districts that historically leaned conservative. They tried to make the race a referendum on President Obama. The tactic failed. Democrats won both seats. Republicans also lost a special election in Pennsylvania that drew a lot party resources.
Despite those painful losses, Republicans swamped the Democrats in the 2010 elections by winning a whopping 61 seats and retaking control of the House of Representatives.
“While special elections do have some predictive power, a simple analysis of special elections back to 1970 shows a fairly weak relationship between special elections and the following midterm election results,” wrote Goldman Sachs analyst Alec Phillips in a note to investors.
If there is one thing the 2016 presidential election has taught us, it is that the normal rules of politics might not apply in the Trump era.
The president pulled off his upset victory by winning traditionally Democratic states such as Michigan and Pennsylvania while underperforming in some affluent and well-educated Republican suburbs, including in deep red states in the South. The U.S. political map appears to be shifting in dramatic ways.
Georgia’s 6th District is a good illustration. Trump won only 48.3% of the vote in the district slightly north of Atlanta last fall vs. 46.8% for Hillary Clinton. He ran 12 points behind Price, the then-incumbent Republican.
“The South is changing. Atlanta is changing. And I like our chances in a runoff, but we need to wake up as a party,” Republican South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham said on the “Today” show. “There is districts like this all over the country that are getting much more moderate.”
There is some hope for Democrats. One year in which special House elections appeared to foreshadow the broader U.S. results was 2008. Democrats won special elections in conservative districts in Louisiana, Mississippi and Illinois that heralded deep Republican losses in the general election later that year.
Of course, George W. Bush was deeply unpopular at the time, and Republicans were widely expected to perform poorly in 2008. Barack Obama easily won the White House, and Democrats expanded upon their House majority.
Another distinct difference between now and 2008: Democrats actually won contested seats that year. Until they win a special election—either the Georgia runoff or upcoming contests in Montana or South Carolina—it will be hard to argue that momentum is on their side.
Republicans should take no comfort, though.
The narrow Republican wins and easier fundraising could encourage more Democrats to mount challenges in seemingly safe conservative seats and force Republicans to spread their money thin. That could increase the odds of Republican losses in swing districts where Trump’s brand of conservatism is off-putting to fiscally conservative but socially moderate voters.