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4 takeaways from the first Trump-era special elections

Protesters outside the Capitol during the tax march last weekend.
Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Democrat Jon Ossoff narrowly failed to clinch an outright victory Tuesday in the Georgia Sixth District special election. The fact that Ossoff is headed to a runoff, where he could lose to Republican Karen Handel, is a disappointment to Democrats given their sky-high expectations in this first marquee race of the Trump era. Still, this represents a dramatic improvement on the party’s typical performance in a district Republicans have held for decades.

This comes a week after another special election, in Kansas’s Fourth District, where Republican candidate Ron Estes ended up winning by about 7 points, but fell dramatically short of Trump’s 27-point margin of victory in the district.

What, if anything, should we take away from all this? Special elections like these aren’t primarily important because one out of 435 House seats could switch to the other party. They are important primarily because the political world is reading a whole lot into them. It’s always risky to extrapolate from just a couple of races where many local and candidate-specific factors are at play, but, well, people do it anyway.

Politicians, potential candidates, operatives, activists, and grassroots donors are all taking cues that will guide their behavior in the coming months.

Which potentially strong candidates will decide to take the risk of actually running? Which incumbents will decide to retire, or to gun for even higher office? Where will the parties and activist groups invest their resources? Which messages, and which types of candidates, tend to do the best?

Overall, the message from the early special elections of the Trump era appears to be a positive one for Democrats. It appears that down-ballot races are becoming Trumpified, and the environment likely looks favorable enough to Democrats to encourage many potential candidates from the party to try their luck. Still, the party needs to actually do better than Clinton did against Trump, and the debate over whether it should embrace a more Bernie Sanders-esque message and candidates has not yet been settled.

1) Down-ballot races are becoming Trumpified

On paper, Georgia’s Sixth District should not even have been in play. In 2012, Mitt Romney beat Barack Obama by over 20 points there. In 2016, then-Rep. Tom Price (R) beat his little-known Democratic challenger by 23 points. And that was in fact the closest out of Price’s seven general election campaigns in the district. All this convinced the GOP that this was fundamentally Republican leaning territory, and that Ossoff would have little chance here.

But there was a reason Democrats thought this seat could be winnable, and that reason was Donald Trump.

While Price was romping to victory in the district last November, Trump was barely squeaking by — the GOP presidential candidate won there by a mere 1 percentage point, according to calculations by Stephen Wolf of Daily Kos Elections. The district has a large share of well-off, educated white voters — a demographic that has historically tended to vote for ordinary Republicans, but turned against Trump.

Whatever the runoff’s outcome, Ossoff has already done far, far better than almost all past Democrats in this district did. So the result here suggests that there has been a Trumpification of down-ballot races — if Trump did poorly in a district, it’s potentially competitive.

2) But Democrats also need to do better than Clinton did against Trump — and in the first round of GA-06, they didn’t

If Democrats replicate Clinton’s performance, they will fail to take the House.
Michael Loccisano/Getty

In the much lower-profile Kansas special election last week, Democrats massively overperformed their presidential ballot showing in the district — while Trump had won by 27 points, GOP candidate Ron Estes only won by 7. That, combined with Trump’s poor approval ratings, suggested to some Democrats that there could have been a sea change in political enthusiasm among each base, and that the underlying math of some competitive districts had changed.

The GA-06 outcome should throw some cold water on those hopes. Together, all Republican candidates there got 51 percent of the vote, and all Democratic candidates for 49 percent of the vote. That is in fact slightly better for the GOP than Trump’s 1 point margin of victory in the district, and it suggests that Republicans still are quite capable of turning out their base.

The bigger picture is that Democrats don’t just need down-ballot races to become Trumpified — because Trump won the median House district by about 3.5 points. Instead, Democrats need to make progress from their 2016 presidential-level showing. Ossoff has a chance to make that happen in the runoff, but in the first round, Democrats as a whole didn’t pull it off.

3) Still, Ossoff probably came close enough to boost Democratic enthusiasm and recruiting, and to scare Republicans

Now, keep in mind that Jon Ossoff is a 30-year-old who does not even live in the district he’s running to represent. He’s not a businessman or a veteran or a local officeholder. Meaning, he’s not the type of candidate who usually wins a House race. Despite all that, he was showered with cash from liberals and came quite close to winning outright in the first round.

This sends a message to candidates who may be more qualified than Ossoff that the environment is favorable to Democrats, and they should roll the dice and run. Similarly, Thompson’s surprisingly strong showing in Kansas should inspire outsider Democrats in redder districts to give a campaign a shot too.

The worry of course is that Democrats need to at some point start winning some of these races or enthusiasm will ebb. But given the history of how the president’s party performs in midterm elections (outcomes in recent decades range from okay to dreadful) the risk of dwindling enthusiasm on the Republican side seems more acute.

For instance, we got the surprising news Wednesday morning that House Oversight Committee Chair Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) wouldn’t run for reelection. Chaffetz was the favorite to win in a very red district, but it had the potential to be a grueling race, since liberal activists were targeting him for laissez-faire attitude on oversight of the White House.

Chaffetz seems to have decided he didn’t need the headache. If other Republican incumbents make similar calculations in the months to come, the party’s chances to hold the House could be imperiled (since open-seat races are generally easier for the opposite party to win).

4) The debate over Democrats’ direction will rage on

Brianna Soukup/Portland Press Herald via Getty

Since Trump’s victory, there’s been a debate among Democrats about whether the party’s best chances for retaking power lie in improving their performance in areas full of educated, well-off white suburbanites, or whether the party is better off making a case to the white working class. To oversimplify, the Hillary Clinton wing of the party tends to like the former theory (see former Clinton aide Brian Fallon’s tweets), and the Bernie Sanders wing tends to prefer the latter (see former Sanders Budget Committee aide Matt Stoller’s tweets).

The Georgia and Kansas results of course haven’t settled this debate and have instead given each camp some more ammunition.

  • The Bernie-ites say: Ossoff ran on a bloodless, mainstream Democratic message bereft of Sanders’s economic populism, and was trying to win a district full of well-off white suburbanites. But despite raising all that cash, he was right around Clinton’s 2016 performance in round one. Meanwhile, in KS-04, Democratic candidate James Thompson was a Sanders supporter and sharply improved on Clinton’s performance. This suggests Democrats should adopt a more economically populist message and focus on winning downscale whites.
  • The Clintonites say: Flipping districts that voted for Trump by more than 20 points is generally an unrealistic fantasy, and resources and attention should be focused on districts that were actually close on the presidential level in 2016. The GA-06 result further drives that home, since the margin was far closer to the Clinton/Trump outcome and didn’t remotely resemble the more lopsided Romney/Obama race or any of Tom Price’s races. While Ossoff raised a lot of money, Republican groups also spent millions against him — Republicans weren’t caught nearly sleeping like they were in Kansas. Furthermore, Ossoff came much closer to winning an outright majority of a multi-candidate field than Thompson did to winning at all, and of course he could win in the runoff.

Because actual elections are messy and complicated, with many factors at play, this spin war is sure to continue for some time. Still, both sides will be anxiously trying to read tea leaves in the next few special elections. Specifically:

  • In Montana’s House special election, banjo-playing populist Democrat and Sanders fan Rob Quist is running in a state Trump won by 20 points. If Quist overperforms similarly to Thompson or wins outright (which would be a true shocker), expect the Bernie wing to claim that their model has been vindicated.
  • The race in South Carolina’s Fifth Congressional District to replace Mick Mulvaney has been a lower-profile affair so far, but on the Democratic side, the candidate of some consultants’ dreams has jumped in: Archie Parnell, a guy who’s worked at Goldman Sachs for two decades and is presumably rather wealthy. A strong showing for Parnell would fit much better with traditional Democratic ideas on how to win red districts.

Finally, there is of course the Ossoff runoff (the run-Ossoff?). Now that voters can’t pick and choose which Republican they like best but are faced with a binary choice between Ossoff and Karen Handel, we will see whether Ossoff can pick up the extra few points he needs to give Democrats an outright win in the Trump era.

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