A warning shot at the Republicans

The Briefing, Vol. V, Issue 16 – This week:

  • Weak special election win jolts Republicans to action
  • Enthusiasm gap heavily favors Democrats
  • Georgia race could boost — or devastate — high Democratic hopes

A very happy Easter to all of our readers.

House 2017

This week, we look in on three House special elections that could well set the tone for the rest of Trump’s first year.

The first one just took place in Kansas. It was a Republican victory, but a close enough one that it demonstrates the party’s current weakness.

A loss in either of the next two special elections could be devastating for Republicans in Washington as they seek to carry out their legislative agenda. This is not so much because of the loss of a seat or two (although that doesn’t help), but because it is always harder to pass legislation when the signs suggest your party has lost the public’s confidence.

Kansas-4: Republicans got a warning shot across their bow in Kansas last Tuesday. It was a shot they would do well to take seriously, and there are signs already in other races that they are doing just that.

Yes, Republican state Treasurer Ron Estes won the race by about seven points, keeping the former House seat of CIA Director Mike Pompeo on the GOP side of the ledger. But Republicans cannot exactly rest easy with a victory as weak as this one was.

Assume, for the sake of argument, that the race was not made close by large numbers of Republicans crossing over to vote for Democrat James Thompson — because that would be an even worse sign for Republican prospects, proving the point even more emphatically.

Assume, instead, that this was a simple matter of turning out the party’s regular voters. In that respect, Republicans significantly underperformed their opponents, to a degree that would be dangerous if it were to go down the same way in other places.

A drop-off in turnout is to be expected in any special election, but the drop-off in this race was not evenly distributed. Republicans in Kansas’ Fourth District brought out for Estes just under 40 percent of the number of voters who had backed Pompeo in 2016, whereas Democrats brought out more than 70 percent of the number that had backed his opponent.

Here’s a thought experiment to quantify just how bad that is: If exactly the same turnout drop-off from the 2016 result were applied to all 435 congressional districts, Democrats would win a 314-seat House majority — well over two-thirds of the chamber.

Obviously that isn’t going to happen, and there are local factors (such as Republican Gov. Sam Brownback’s unpopularity) that may separate this special election from others that are coming up. But the point is simply to put some numbers to the idea that the enthusiasm gap heavily favors Democrats, such that Republicans can expect to struggle mightily and spend big money just to hold on to seats that they would normally take for granted. If at any point they lose a seat they are supposed to hold, it will be a moment when the Left smells blood in the water, and a sign of bad things to come in the 2018 midterm.

To be sure, the enthusiasm gap matters far more than usual in low-turnout special elections. But several of these are coming up soon — in Georgia on Tuesday, in Montana next month, and (with the nomination of Rep. Tom Marino to the Trump administration) in northwest Pennsylvania later this year.

An aside: Swing in this Kansas race is still not nearly as dramatic as the one that characterized the January 2010 Massachusetts Senate special election. Recall that that race presaged the Republican wave election ten months later. In that race, the Democratic vote for Martha Coakley dropped off by nearly 50 percent from John Kerry’s statewide performance in 2008, whereas Republican Scott Brown won more votes than Republican candidates usually get in midterm or presidential years. But in that race, the role of a substantial number of Democratic voters supporting Brown cannot be realistically ignored.

Georgia-6: The Kansas race serves as a reminder that Republicans have a lot of work to do just to hold their ground. As evidence, both the NRCC and Speaker Paul Ryan’s Congressional Leadership Fund are spending significant sums in Georgia’s Sixth District, all to hold on to a seat that no Democrat has held since it was created in a Democratic gerrymander as a GOP vote sink after the 1990 Census.

Republicans still hold forth hope that they can keep Democrat Jon Ossoff below the 50 percent threshold that would allow him to win the district outright. An outright win in the first round over a fractured 18-candidate field might be Ossoff’s best chance at reaching Congress, with the caveat that the Republican brand could suffer even more damage by the time the runoff occurs June 20.

Recent polling suggests that Ossoff is running somewhere between 39 and 45 percent. If he hits the low end of that range after all the hype, the $8 million he has raised, and the massive support he has received from left-wing groups like MoveOn.org and Planned Parenthood, one cannot like his chances in the June runoff. If, on the other hand, he hits the high end of that range or better, his chances in a runoff are very realistic and perhaps better than even.

There are already signs that Republicans may have gotten their act together in Georgia-6. In the last few days of the early vote, Republican voters (that is, voters who have previously voted in Republican primaries) caught up and nearly equalized with Democratic voters, after having trailed badly earlier on. As in most states, Democrats tend to overperform in early voting, whereas Republicans do so in the votes actually cast on election day.

Still, the clear sign of Democratic enthusiasm is that Democrats have cast more early and absentee votes than they did in the 2014 midterm, in which Republican Rep. Tom Price won with 66 percent. Republicans don’t need to win by such a margin (nor will they), but Republican voters have cast far fewer early votes than they did in that general election contest.

Moreover, the Republicans’ strong performance in late early voting comes with the caveat that no one knows for sure how anyone voted. If discontent with Republican rule in the Trump era is widely felt, Ossoff could be doing better than the figures suggest, perhaps even gaining a winning advantage in the early vote.

With all this about Democratic enthusiasm, it’s worth adding one other point. Amid raging anger over Trump’s election within their base, the pressure is on Democrats to capitalize on it and win something tangible. So far, no special election worthy of note has gone their way, despite abundant evidence in nearly every race of an enthusiasm gap in their favor.

Already, there is some (not entirely justified) fury among left-wingers that the DCCC did not do more for Thompson in Kansas because was a Bernie Sanders sympathizer. (As if the party committee could have overcome a seven-point margin in a heavily Republican district.)

The Democratic base’s expectations are currently quite high — perhaps too high — in this Georgia race, and Democratic morale could be dashed if Ossoff falls flat. The more losses, the more recriminations there will be.

Assuming Republicans do force the runoff against Ossoff, which seems likely, Karen Handel is the Republican candidate most likely to qualify for it — Bob Gray, the candidate backed by the Club for Growth, is the other one with a reasonable shot. For now, the Republicans’ voices are hard for voters to hear over the din of an 18-candidate jungle primary, and that’s a challenge that Ossoff, as the nationally ordained Democratic savior, does not face. But this factor will be more even in a runoff campaign, and the Republican Party apparatus will be in a position to campaign for someone instead of merely against Ossoff.

Montana-At Large: The race to replace former Rep. Ryan Zinke, R, takes place May 25. Republicans may have been fortunate to draw an opponent (Robert Quist) who has previously advocated gun registration in a state where gun rights are sacrosanct. But they’re already dumping money into this House special election, taking no chances and making sure everyone is aware of it.

The NRCC poured in more than a quarter-million dollars last week against Quist, and the NRA an additional $160,000. Last month, Paul Ryan’s SuperPAC tossed in an astounding $700,000, apparently just to discourage any Democratic involvement. Spending on the Democratic side was more limited, with Planned Parenthood kicking in just a few thousand for canvassing and phone banking.

Republicans won’t be lacking for resources in this race, as their candidate, businessman and 2016 gubernatorial nominee Greg Gianforte, has great personal wealth and is willing to spend it.