July 6th, 2017

Democrats endure series of narrow losses in four special elections

Social StudiesU.S.

Supporters for Georgia 6th Congressional District Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff rally and wave at passing cars amid signs for Republican candidate Karen Handel outside St Mary’s Orthodox Church, Handel’s polling place in Roswell, Georgia June 20, 2017. REUTERS

By Amanda Wilcox


The long, expensive and bitterly contested special congressional race in the northern Atlanta suburbs ended on June 20 with Republican Karen Handel’s 52 percent to 48 percent win over Democrat Jon Ossoff.

Georgia’s sixth district, which was vacated by current Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price, has been safely conservative for decades: Price won the district by 23 points in 2016, 32 points in 2014, and 29 points in 2012. However, former GOP candidate Mitt Romney outperformed President Donald Trump in the district in 2012, and combined with Trump’s sinking approval ratings, Democrats hoped to send a message that a backlash against the president could propel their party to victory in the 2018 midterm elections.

As a result, the race was seen as symbolic by both parties: for Democrats, a chance to prove that increasing dissatisfaction with the Trump administration could translate into action at the ballot box, and for Republicans, a chance to prove that their base is well-preserved and mobilized despite dissatisfaction with Trump and the American Health Care Act.

In a sign of how much both Democrats and Republicans wanted to win, money poured into the Georgia district from across the country, and the approximately $50 million contest shattered spending records for former congressional races. However, despite the intense media coverage, expensive advertising campaign and relentless community organizing on both sides of the political aisle in Georgia, the margin between Handel and Ossoff was comparable to the Republican edges in Kansas, Montana and South Carolina — states in which special elections flew under the radar by comparison. In the election to replace Director of the Office of Management and Budget Mick Mulvaney in South Carolina’s fifth district, Democrat Archie Parnell finished just 3.4 points behind Republican Ralph Norman — a smaller margin than the one between Handel and Ossoff, even without the spending and media blitz. In both South Carolina’s fifth district and Kansas’s fourth district, in which Republican Ron Estes edged out Democrat James Thompson to replace CIA Director Mike Pompeo, each Democrat performed better than Hillary Clinton in 2016. However, unlike his fellow Democrats, Ossoff underperformed Clinton. There is no way of knowing whether or not Democrats might have prevailed in other special elections had they redirected some of the funds and attention that were almost single-mindedly focused on the Georgia election.

The outcome of any special election is difficult to project onto the countrywide 2018 midterms, when all 435 seats in the United States House of Representatives and a third of the seats in the U.S. Senate will be up for re-election. Nevertheless, each of these special elections will have immediate short-term impacts. The Republican winning streak, when interpreted as a referendum on the Republican-controlled executive and legislative branches, could restore the confidence of GOP members of Congress anxious about retaining their seats and make it easier for Republicans to avoid defections as they seek to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.

The existential threat posed by additional Democratic votes against President Trump’s agenda has also been eased. Furthermore, it could also shore up Republican efforts to fund-raise for incumbents and recruit new candidates if they take the results as a sign that the national political climate is not particularly hostile to their party, despite the emboldened Democratic electorate.

Notwithstanding the string of Democratic losses that some observers may interpret as damaging for the party, the odds of a Democratic wave in the midterm elections are decent. In every special election, Democrats shrunk the Republican margins sizably from just eight months ago, often by double digits. Each of the districts where special elections were held had historically been GOP-controlled, and similar leftward swings in slightly bluer districts could lead to flipped seats.

The president’s party almost always loses seats during midterm elections, and an underwater approval rating similar to Trump’s can magnify that effect. In addition, according to a recent Gallup poll, 45 percent of the electorate identifies as Democratic while only 38 percent identifies as Republican. Lastly, Hillary Clinton prevailed in 24 districts won by Republican incumbents in 2016. The prospect of a major leftward swing in 2018 is bound to keep GOP incumbents awake at night.

Amanda Wilcox is a NewsHour Extra summer intern and a rising sophomore at Wake Forest University. 

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