Tighter special elections could worry GOP incumbents

Tighter special elections could worry GOP incumbents
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A series of special elections to fill seats opened by representatives who have taken jobs with the Trump administration is exposing a significant enthusiasm gap between energized Democratic and complacent Republican voters. And while that imbalance may not add up to Democrats winning any new seats in those special elections, it creates a new problem for Republican leaders as they manage their anxious conference.

Kansas’s special election Tuesday to fill the Wichita-based seat once held by CIA Director Mike Pompeo is emblematic of the dual challenges Republicans face: Not only must their candidates win, but their margins will be compared to the former members they replace — and to President Trump himself. 

In Kansas, the Republican candidate, state Treasurer Ron Estes (R), won the race — but by a narrow margin of just under seven points, much worse than other Republican candidates have received in the district.

By comparison, President Trump won the district by a 27-point margin in 2016. In 2012, Mitt Romney beat President Obama there by more than 25 points.

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Democrats are running well in private polling in Georgia's 6th District, once held by Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price; in Montana, where Ryan Zinke left his seat to become Interior Secretary; and in South Carolina's 5th District, formerly held by Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney. Trump carried all three districts by narrower margins than he did the Kansas seat.

All four districts should, under ordinary circumstances, stay firmly in the red column. Even in special elections, where turnout is unpredictable and normal rules don't apply, the districts are conservative enough that Republicans could very well win the three remaining seats.

But the fact that the races are closer than anticipated is cause for concern among some GOP strategists.

"Their people are showing up," said Tom Davis, the former Virginia congressman who headed the National Republican Congressional Committee while in office. "The Democrats have a natural turnout right now that Republicans don't have, because of their anger."

Republicans — and even Democrats — have been surprised by the volume of donations funneling into the Democratic candidates' coffers. Jon Ossoff, the Democrat running to replace Price in Georgia, has hauled in more than $8.3 million, an incredible sum that rivals some Senate races. That has some in the GOP worried that their donors are slower to chip in.

"Dems now have a motivated online donor base that can raise for anything, anywhere," said Brad Todd, a GOP strategist who has long worked closely with the NRCC. "We better figure out how to deploy the president's massive list to match them."

In recent years, early special election results have proved a harbinger of political waves, even if the party in power keeps the seat. In 2005 and 2006, Republicans Jean Schmidt and Brian Bilbray won nail-biter special elections in Ohio and California, months before Democrats reclaimed control of Congress. 

Even more frightening for the party in power is when the minority starts winning special elections in the majority's territory. Months before the 1994 election that saw Republicans capture control of the House for the first time in 40 years, GOP candidates won Democratic-held seats in special elections in Kentucky and Oklahoma. In 2008, Democrats won special elections for seats formerly held by Republicans in Illinois, Louisiana and Mississippi, preceding another Democratic wave. 

When members begin to sense a political wave, those contemplating ending their Congressional careers can stampede to the exits, giving their party the unenviable task of defending open seats rather than defending incumbents. 

Ahead of the 2006 Democratic wave, 18 Republicans retired; Democrats won eight of those seats. Twenty-seven Republicans retired before the 2008 Democratic wave; Democrats captured 13 of those seats. And before the 2010 elections, 17 Democrats called it quits; Republicans rode the wave to capture 12 of those seats.

Both parties do their best to pressure the opposition to quit. In the run-up to the 2010 elections, when Republicans once again recaptured control of Congress, the NRCC used close special elections in Pennsylvania, which they lost, and Hawaii, which they won, to convince Democrats the field was tilting against them. 

A whiteboard in NRCC headquarters listed potential targets, including long-time incumbents like Reps. Marion Berry (D-Ark.) and Vic Snyder (D-Ark.) who had rarely faced anything more than token opposition. Every day, the committee issued a press release, or fed opposition research to a friendly reporter or bought a few small television spots that would earn media attention.

"We made their lives as miserable as possible," one GOP strategist involved in the operation recalled. "We wanted to communicate the message that if you want to run again, expect two more years of this."

Democrats must be careful not to overplay their hand, lest their base become demoralized by high-profile losses in deeply Republican territory. Losing in Kansas on Tuesday was entirely expected; Ossoff's performance in Georgia has raised expectations there, though his chances will diminish greatly if he is unable to hit the 50 percent necessary next week to avoid a June runoff.

But at the moment, it's Republicans who are subject to political pressures, from angry Democrats confronting them at town hall meetings to President Trump's dismally low approval rating and a stagnant agenda on Capitol Hill. The party's window to turn things around is still open, but their opportunities are not endless. 

"If Republicans don't produce a tax bill, and repeal and replace, and that kind of stuff, you've got to ask yourself how do you get the Republican base out there" to vote, Davis said. "If they don't change the trajectory, they're going to have a bad year."

And Democrats will do their best to return the favor Republicans bestowed on their incumbents eight years ago.