Special Elections Signal 2018 Struggles For The GOP

Special Elections Signal 2018 Struggles For The GOP

There’s a hefty chunk of time between now and November 2018, when the next congressional election gives Democrats the opportunity to retake either the House of Representatives, Senate, or both. Still wounded from last fall, Democrats are itching for a chance to settle the score.  Republicans, having fizzled in their initial goal of implementing conservative healthcare reform, are preparing for a grinding campaign. Most pundits predict that the midterms will be a referendum on the performance of controversial Republican President Donald Trump.

If the public thinks Trump is doing well, conventional wisdom holds, the GOP will maintain its hold on Congress. If voters are disappointed with the commander-in-chief, however, Democrats will pick up seats in swing states and perhaps retake control of one or both houses of Congress.  Although public opinion polls put President Trump in a ditch, such polls were not particularly reliable ahead of the 2016 presidential election. 

Despite Donald Trump languishing as the least popular president in history, or at least in modern times, his upset victories in both the 2016 Republican primaries and the general election means his support should not be underestimated. 

To ascertain whether Trump’s voters will remain loyal, or whether an anti-Trump tide is rising in the wake of strong Republican victories, pundits’ eyes were glued to Georgia. In that state’s sixth congressional district, young Democrat Jon Ossoff showed surprising strength in a special election to fill the seat of former Republican Representative Tom Price, who was tapped by Trump to become the new Secretary of Health and Human Services. Though Ossoff fell just shy of the 50% of the vote to win outright (coming in at 48.1%), he may still have his day in June.

For the Republicans to lose Price’s former seat in Georgia would be an ominous foreshadowing of the 2018 midterms. Because a president will only appoint members of Congress to his cabinet if they are from safe districts, guaranteed to be won again by the president’s political party, a GOP defeat in Georgia’s sixth district means little is safe from upset in Trumpland. A strong Democratic challenge in deep red territory has not been isolated to Georgia: The GOP only narrowly held onto a House seat in Kansas in what was originally thought to be a slam-dunk special election.

The former holder of the seat, Mike Pompeo, was named as Trump’s new CIA director and has since become embroiled in his own scandal after insisting that WikiLeaks was anti-American and was hiding behind “free speech.”  Ironically, Pompeo’s condemnation of WikiLeaks as CIA director runs counter to his recent behavior as a U.S. Representative, when he praised the website as a noble whistleblower for revealing the Democratic National Committee’s unethical favoritism during that party’s presidential primaries. 

Although the GOP held Pompeo’s seat in Kansas, Georgia’s sixth House district and four other special elections for Republican seats are upcoming in 2017: Montana’s at-large House district, South Carolina’s fifth House district, Pennsylvania’s tenth House district, and an Alabama U.S. Senate seat. All of these seats are considered Republican strongholds, meaning that Democrats can garner a lot of positive press if they can even make the GOP sweat by sponsoring and supporting competitive candidates.

Alabama’s Senate seat, recently vacated by now-Attorney General Jeff Session, is probably safe, as is the Montana House seat formerly held by Ryan Zinke. Tom Marino’s Pennsylvania district, however, is in a swing state and could become a Democratic battleground. Mick Mulvaney’s South Carolina district is close to North Carolina, which was one of the vaunted swing states of 2016. While conservatives may still scoff at the notion that a liberal candidate could pick up a House seat in Georgia or South Carolina, the GOP is facing two strength-sapping facts that could lead to upsets.

First, Trump’s populist energy is unlikely to hold now that he has been in office for almost three months. The real estate scion and reality TV star put on an amazing performance as a presidential candidate, but he is now constrained by the demands of the Oval Office. His campaign was glitz, glamor, and hope… but now reality is setting in. The notorious straight-talker has already flip-flopped on several issues, ranging from U.S. involvement in the Middle East to political advisers to the U.S. line on China as a trade rival.

With Donald Trump turning out to be more calm and conventional than originally thought, will populist conservatives turn out in droves to defend that congressional seats left open by his cabinet picks?

Second, much of Trump’s unexpected victory was fueled by anti-Clinton and anti-Obama sentiment rather than a genuine affinity for the political positions of either Trump himself or the Republican Party in general. With Hillary Clinton defeated and Barack Obama off on a post-presidential vacation, does sufficient resentment and animosity still exist to fire up the GOP base? Plenty of people may have been motivated to vote for Donald Trump, especially to spite Hillary Clinton, but will there be much motivation to protect Mick Mulvaney’s seat? 

Democrats, though they may be few and far between in Georgia and South Carolina, are likely chomping at the bit to cast a vote that will sting Trump and the GOP. Complacent in victory, the many Republicans in those states may not vote at all. As in most elections, it is all about generating turnout, and the GOP is at a disadvantage in the 2017 special elections.