By Hastings Wyman –
Three special elections this month in which Democrats ran better than is normal beg the question, is there a trend away from the GOP as many voters express their displeasure with the Donald Trump presidency?
In Kansas’s 4th District, voters went to the polls on April 11 in to fill the seat of US Rep. Mike Pompeo (R), who was named Trump’s CIA director. Democrat James Thompson, a civil-rights attorney and a newcomer to elective politics, held Republican state Treasurer Ron Estes to an 8 point victory. While it was a solid win for the GOP, Pompeo had a 31 point victory last fall; moreover, Trump had also won an overwhelming majority in the district.
Then on April 18 in the election to fill the vacancy in Georgia’s 6th District as a result of Trump choosing US Rep. Tom Price (R) to be Health and Human Services Secretary, Democrat Jon Ossoff, a political newcomer, garnered 48% of the vote, just two points below the majority he needed to avoid a runoff and win the election. Eleven Republicans divided 51% of the vote. It was a jolt to the GOP, which had assumed Ossoff would hit a ceiling of 44% or less. Trump carried the district, composed of Atlanta suburbs, by a mere one point in 2016, but Price won reelection by 23 points, winning 61% of the vote. The surge in Democratic turnout was clear: In 2014, in the 6th District’s last comparable election, the Democratic nominee got 71,000 while Democrat Ossoff got 90,000 votes, a major turnout in this special election, when turnout is usually low.
Given the nature of the electorate in Georgia 6, essentially upscale, college- educated, somewhat moderate Republicans, almost half of whom voted for Clinton last fall, Professor Charles Bullock, University of Georgia political scientist, says “It’s clear the result does say something about anti-Trump Republicans swinging to the Democrats… You had every kind of Republican in there. Still 48% voted for an unknown Democrat.” As for how Trump is viewed, Bullock says “the hard-right folks think he’s doing a great job, but moderate Republicans and independents, I don’t think they are impressed with what they’ve seen in the first 100 days.”
On the same day in Prince William County, Virginia, political newcomer Jackie Smith (D) defeated Del. Jackson Miller (R), the state House Majority Whip, by eight points in a special election for clerk of court. Not only was Miller a major player in the legislature, but he raised seven times as much money as Smith. Despite the relatively minor office at stake, the Democrats called out the big guns. Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), US Sen. Tim Kaine and US Rep. Gerald Connolly (D) all played a role in Smith’s campaign, from robo-calls to direct mail. In addition, both Democratic candidates for governor, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam and former US Rep. Tom Perriello, campaigned for her.
Geoffrey Skelley, political analyst at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, while opining that the clerk of court election “had limited meaning,” noted that “Prince
William is the kind of place where Democrats have had trouble turning out their vote, especially in special elections… This election showed – at least this time – they could get their voters to the polls.”
Three swallows do not a summer make. For starters, there were local factors at play in each race. In Kansas, the unpopularity of Republican Governor Sam Brownback probably hurt the GOP turnout for Estes. In Georgia, Ossoff raised at least $8.5 million, while no Republican candidate came even close to that amount. Moreover, the GOP’s candidates, backed by a divided mixture of leading Georgia Republicans, formed a circular firing squad, attacking each other far more than Ossoff. And in Virginia, in December, in the one competitive state legislative election since Trump was elected, the GOP easily held on to the seat.
But the similarities in the three elections may be more significant. Democratic turnout surged in all three elections. The Democratic contenders were fresh faces, new to politics, contrasting with the same ol’, same ol’ experienced politicians on the GOP side. Democrats were well-organized, as evidenced by their leads in the early voting. And the Democrats, even when losing, made some sort of political history, coming closer than they had in a decade or more.
On the other hand, moral victories only go so far. The GOP won the Kansas seat and stands a good chance of winning the Georgia seat, where Republican big wigs are now coalescing behind Handel. And the Democrats’ Virginia victory was for a relatively minor prize.
The next real test of the Trump effect on Republican candidates won’t come until November of next year. For now, the Democrats have the wind at their back. But the mid-term elections are 18 months away, and that is an eternity in politics. Stay tuned.