A happy Memorial Day to all of our readers.
The Briefing, Vol V, Issue 22 – This week:
- Republicans hold on to keep House seat in Montana
- Dems face serious problem: Unacceptable to many voters
- Mandel emerges as consensus GOP Senate candidate in Ohio
A difficult week for the Trump administration seemed likely to produce the Democrats’ first big victory of 2017. It didn’t.
In the end, the Republican candidate won Thursday’s special U.S. House election in spite of his own best efforts. And in electing him, the voters in Montana not only dampened Democratic spirits, but also tamped down the media narrative that White House’s problems are bringing down the entire Republican Party.
This is not to say that Republicans can rest easy. They appear more likely to lose the upcoming special election in Georgia. And even in the cycle of the 2010 Republican wave, the opposition party didn’t start winning elections of any sort until November of 2009, and won their first special election to Congress in January 2010.
So there’s no reason to think the Republicans are out of the woods just because they’ve mostly kept Democrats to “moral victories” so far.
Montana-At Large: Republican Greg Gianforte’s surprising victory in Montana speaks volumes about how badly Democrats are struggling to win, even in the most favorable environment possible.
The race, which on paper should have been an easy Republican hold, was expected to be very close early last week, fueled in part by the recent turbulence in the Trump administration. But after Gianforte allegedly body-slammed a political reporter on election eve, it seemed like a lost cause for Republicans. The millions of dollars Republicans and outside groups had poured into the race (not to mention a million from the candidate himself) seemed likely to go for naught.
Under those circumstances, a Republican defeat would have been easy enough to explain. The intemperance of the candidate, GOP leaders would have said, spoiled a race that otherwise they would have won.
But it didn’t happen that way. Gianforte won right after he was charged with misdemeanor assault for giving a reporter a beating bad enough to break his glasses.
How to explain the result? Surely, Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock’s insistence on holding an all-mail election played a role. He believed it would help Democrats, and so did the state Republican Party chairman, who objected strenuously and claimed this would set back the party’s aim to make Montana a reliably Republican state. In the end, it meant that most votes had been cast and sealed before it even happened.
But this can’t explain everything. Although there is no complete breakdown of the statewide early vote versus the vote on election day itself, the AP did provide a tally for some of the state’s largest counties. And within those, the shift toward Democrat Rob Quist between the early vote (the vast majority of ballots cast, before the incident) and the election day vote was was only about five points — not big enough that it would have won him the race if applied statewide, nor to convincingly demonstrate that the alleged assault was the reason.
Montana is not exactly easy for Democrats to win — although in recent history, they have a very good track record, except when it comes to the presidential ticket. Still, there were very high hopes for this race, especially after Trump’s bad week, and even more so after Gianforte’s incident. It’s quite a letdown, after many Republicans had assumed a loss, that Democrats end up instead with just another moral victory, like so many before it.
Other recent Democratic losses have been a lot easier to explain. In 2010, they lost the House and several Senate seats because of a perception that Democrats, then firmly in charge of Washington, were ideologically out of control, symbolized most by the passage of Obamacare. In 2014, they lost again because of the fruit of their labor.
But when Democrats are completely out of power, and voters are quite clearly (according to the polls) unhappy with the Republicans who are in power, it stands to reason that they should should be winning. So what explains their continued inability to win?
There are some parts of America where voters have simply come not to trust Democrats. And the party’s local candidates, for all their efforts to make themselves electable — perhaps by moderating their positions or embracing a populist-type theme reminiscent of Trump of Bernie Sanders — they have the party’s unpopular national leadership flying above them like an albatross wherever they go. As one voter told a reporter on the scene, “I don’t care what they say… a vote for Quist is a vote for Pelosi.”
And to add insult to injury, the Democratic candidates who try to take more moderate positions on at least one issue — abortion — are also subjected to an intramural pummeling by the likes of DNC Chairman Tom Perez. This was how Democrats defeated themselves in the less important but nonetheless high profile Omaha mayor’s race — over an issue that has nothing to do with the mayoralty of Omaha.
As much as Democrats complain about Trump’s unpalatability, they’re the ones that lost to him in a head-to-head, and they keep losing even as his approval rating craters. They aren’t ready yet to accept that the Democratic Party, in recent years, has come to stand for many things that heartland voters who were once more open to voting Democratic just don’t and won’t accept.
South Carolina-5: There will be a lot less drama in the race to replace Mick Mulvaney, to be held on June 20. The parties are not spending big, and what polls there are (there is one, from a a conservative PAC) suggests a large double digit lead for Republican former state Rep. Ralph Norman over Democrat Archie Parnell.
Georgia-6: This race, also to be held June 20, remains very close, with Democrat Jon Ossoff perhaps enjoying a small lead over Republican Karen Handel three weeks out. At this point, Democrats are left pinning all of their hopes on Ossoff for the win that breaks a stubborn Republican dam. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee publicly made another seven-figure commitment for the final days, and will have burnt more than $5 million by the time it’s over.
Ohio: Having gained the endorsement of Republican Sen. Rob Portman, it appears increasingly likely that Treasurer Josh Mandel will be a consensus Republican nominee for Senate and run a rematch against Democrat Sen. Sherrod Brown. Mandel ran a respectable race in a difficult environment in 2012, and there is evidence that the state has become more Republican, but it will be an uphill climb to unseat Brown.