NBC’s Political Director, Chuck Todd, is fond of saying, “if it’s Tuesday, chances are someone is voting somewhere.” In 2017, he’s been referring to a number of special elections to fill vacancies in the House of Representatives.
The off-year election cycle began with an election to replace Mike Pompeo in Kansas’s fourth congressional district. When some polls showed the race between Republican state treasurer Ron Estes and Democrat James Thompson had narrowed, the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) invested $10,000 in advertising and mainstream outlets began to consider the possibility of an upset. On April 11, Estes won with 52.5% of the vote to Thompson’s 45.7%. Democrats bragged about Thompson’s showing, noting he improved on the Democrats’ performance in November by 16%. They spun the loss as a “moral victory” and suggested it signals strength in their strategy. In reality, it was nothing special. Since 2005, minority party challengers in contested special elections typically improve on their party’s performance in the most recent general election. 16% is well above average, but not outside the norm.
Democrats encouraged by their performance in Kansas then set their sights on the much more competitive race in Georgia’s sixth district. Until recently the sixth was represented by Tom Price, the new secretary of Health and Human Services. Descriptions of the district’s partisanship range from “ruby red” to “pulsing with vigorous Republican blood” as Washington Post reporter Robert Costa recently put it. George W. Bush won the district by 36% in 2000 and 41% in 2004, John McCain carried it by 25% in 2008, and Mitt Romney followed with a 23-point victory in 2012 but Donald Trump severely underperformed in 2016, winning 48% to Hillary Clinton’s 47%. Highly educated and racially diverse, the sixth is an approximate representation of an Atlanta suburb and voters there have overwhelmingly supported Republicans in past races, but the Democrats sensed vulnerability.
Though Democrat John Ossoff, a former congressional aide turned documentary filmmaker that doesn’t live in the district, took an enormous lead in the early voting period, he failed to win outright and finished with 48% of the vote. That triggered a runoff election between Ossoff and the Republican second-place finisher, former Georgia secretary of state, Karen Handel. Democrats had framed this race as a crucial early test of the resistance. They’re half right; This is a setback and how they respond represents a crucial stress test of their strategy. Will activists and donors be encouraged by Ossoff’s 10% improvement over their nominee in 2016 and pledge to help him achieve victory over Handel in June? Or will they retreat, figuring that flipping the sixth is a lost cause? Despite enthusiasm and interest in Ossoff’s challenge, Republican voters comprised 51% of the vote in the first round and the other candidates quickly united behind the second place finisher. Handel had distanced herself from Trump as well and trumpeted her district’s values.
Another factor in the race is going largely unnoticed: the district’s voters have exalted pro-life candidates for years. Republican nominees, which have included Price as well as Georgia Senator Johnny Isakson and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, have made their opposition to abortion rights central to their campaigns. Handel fits the mold. As an employee of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, she helped called attention to the organization’s donations to Planned Parenthood. When Komen reversed its decision to withdraw funding, Handel resigned, and thus launched a public debate in which Planned Parenthood was forced to acknowledge that they do not provide mammograms and merely refer women to outside providers. She even wrote a book called Planned Bullyhood about her experience. As a result, Democratic leaders do not hold her in high regard, but Ossoff might not benefit from contributions coming from pro-choice groups and Planned Parenthood.
In drawing up their list of targeted districts for 2018, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) focused on Republican districts carried by Clinton or ones where Trump won by 1 to 3% so Georgia’s sixth made the cut, but what if they’re mistaken? According to their strategy, the sixth would actually be among the most competitive race in their sights. If they couldn’t win there, how could they expect to contest districts long-held by Republican representatives where Trump did slightly better? It’s not at all imperative that Democrats have to expand the map beyond winning the closest 25 elections, but everything is amped up in the wake of Trump’s victory. They’re trying to make 2018 a national referendum on the president and invoke the kind of passion that swept Republicans into power in 2010.
Perhaps a new set of competitive districts has emerged. That seems to be the assumption of NBC News, which extended the threshold to every district where Trump won less than 55% of the vote for a total of 97 races to watch, 49 of which are in suburban sunbelt districts like the sixth. Assumptions are like opinions of Donald Trump - everyone has one - but despite what some pundits have to say, there’s no reason to make predictions or strategize based on the results of these special elections. People are voting already and there’s nothing special about that.
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