I refrained from writing about the special elections. Now that they are over I’d like to make a few comments. Let me preface my remarks by saying that experience has taught me that special elections are generally much more hype than impact. Let’s explore.
I’m not simply playing things down because the Democrats lost every special election this year. They were supposed to; all the elections were in solid red districts. Any victory would have been a plus but even all four would have still left the Republicans in charge of the House by a wide margin. As I’m certain John Boehner and Paul Ryan would tell you in private, the Speaker’s biggest problem is that their caucus is a coalition not a homogenous caucus. In plain English: the Republican Speaker’s biggest problem is not the House Democrats; it is the House Republicans.
Tuesday the final two special elections took place and the results were interesting but not terrifically surprising. Most of the attention was focused on Georgia 6 where Republican Karen Handel defeated Democrat Jon Ossoff by nearly 4% or about 10,000 votes. That was a slightly larger margin than expected but still within the oft-forgotten margin of error of the polls. (More about that race later.)
The surprise to me was that Democrat Archie Parnell lost in South Carolina 5 by only 3%. Parnell was far from the dream Democratic candidate. This should be a very safe GOP district. There was little attention paid to this race along with little outside money spent on it. The Republicans figured they had it in the bag and the Democrats figured they didn’t have a chance. This is the one that would be scaring the pants off me if I was a Republican strategist.
I think making most 2018 Congressional races a referendum on Trump will be a winning strategy more often than not. It’s not 2018 yet and Trump’s base is still holding fairly solid. The erosion has just started and should be in full avalanche mode by November of 2018 whether Trump is still in office by then or has left in shame. As of today, Trump can still get his base to the polls if they think he needs their help to move his agenda along.
There is simply too much money in politics and Georgia 6 is a textbook example. It was the most expensive House race in history. It appears when the final totals are in it will approach or slightly exceed $60 million. This was for one of 435 House seats that could not possibly affect control of the chamber and is only for the remainder of the term. Insanity! The bright news for the Democrats (in the immediate anyway) is that overwhelmingly Ossoff’s money came from grassroots donors while the overwhelming majority of Handel’s money came from Republican organizations. It appears about $7 million came from a PAC under the control of Speaker Ryan. If Ryan thinks he bought Handel’s loyalty I think he has a rude awakening coming. He might have been as well (and possibly better) off with Ossoff in that seat.
That brings me to my next point. Karen Handel is not a regular Republican; she is a right wing extremist. The polarization we continue to experience in American elections is not getting us middle of the road office holders in a nation that is basically middle of the road. How do we expect government to get big things done when we send a collection of people to Washington (and state capitals) too many of whom are at their political parties’ extremes?
The question remains: Where do we go from here? Politically Republicans should be scared and Democrats must continue to work hard.
Most of the world has seen the folly of Donald Trump’s presidency. You see that in foreign elections. It is only a matter of time before a substantial portion of Trump’s base sees the light. That will be a challenge for Republican candidates and an opportunity for Democrats.
Georgia 6 was a significant loss for Democrats in that millions of out of state personal donation dollars poured in. The Democrats in particular have become very good at soliciting small donations. It is a cottage industry; make no mistake about that. Well into the day on Tuesday I received an e-mail asking for money (I deleted it without reading beyond the headline) and I am far from near the top of any fundraiser’s hit list!
The energy that is helping the Democrats is often coming from outside the Party structure. That is because a lot of Americans who don’t want to identify with either political party are terrified of Trump. Keeping them energized without an electoral victory will be challenging.
Here is a big word of caution for the Democrats: The progress we seem to be making is almost all in the South. What good is putting the South in play if we simultaneously put the Great Lakes’ region in play for the Republicans? The true story of 2016 is still largely unknown. This much I figured out: Albeit perhaps temporary, Trump tapped into something.
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