Special election sweep boosts Trump agenda

The Republican sweep of four contested House special elections this year has handed President Trump and his party a much-needed boost to move a healthcare bill and perhaps more of their stalled legislative agenda.

GOP officials in Washington breathed a sigh of relief after their candidate, Karen Handel, fended off Democrat Jon Ossoff in a Georgia runoff election Tuesday night — a race that Democrats had poured tens of millions of dollars into and billed as a referendum on the unpopular president and his policies.

Republican Ralph Norman on Tuesday defeated Democrat Archie Parnell by an even narrower margin — a little more than 3 percentage points — in a South Carolina race that received far less national attention.

If energized Democrats had claimed either of those long-held GOP seats, they could have argued that even traditionally red seats are in play in 2018 and Republicans who back Trump’s agenda do so at their own peril.

{mosads}But the GOP’s perfect 4-0 contested special-election record in 2017 now gives Capitol Hill Republicans some cover to pass their ObamaCare repeal-and-replace bill, a major tax-reform package and other legislative priorities. And the media will shift its focus from the special elections back to policy, lawmakers said, even as the Russia investigation continues to dominate the headlines.

“It certainly boosts Republican morale,” said Rep. Tom Cole (Okla.), a former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), the House GOP’s campaign arm.

“There are local reasons [why Ossoff lost]. He didn’t live in the district,” added Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.). “But I think it bodes well for the president’s agenda for now.”

More specifically, staunch repeal advocates will point to the Georgia results to argue that skeptical Senate Republicans can back repeal of the health law without risking reelection. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) plans to unveil his own healthcare bill on Thursday and put it on the floor next week.

“Clearly Karen Handel defended us on [healthcare] and ran on ‘We need to get this stuff done. This is something we need to finish,’ ” Cole said, “so I think that’s an important message from our base to our members.”

The White House, too, sees the GOP victories in Georgia and South Carolina Tuesday night as a clear-cut vote of confidence for its policy agenda — and proof the Democrats don’t have a winning platform. 

“They thought the elections last night were going to be a referendum on this president,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Wednesday on “Fox and Friends.” “And once again, he proved, never underestimate him, and that the American people put him and other Republicans in place for a reason: They have an agenda.”

She added, “Frankly, I think Republicans are going to get tired of winning at some point if the Democrats don’t ever get an agenda.”

While many Republicans took a victory lap on Wednesday, not all had been so confident about holding the 6th District seat in the Atlanta suburbs. 

Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), who ran the NRCC during the 2014 and 2016 cycles, said he thought Democrats were going to pull off the victory. After all, he said, Democrats appeared to be more energized, had a bigger army of volunteers and outspent the GOP roughly $32 million to $23 million in what was the most expensive House race in U.S. history.

“I didn’t think we were going to win in Georgia three weeks ago … given the overall political environment, the ‘Resist’ movement, the hyperactivity at our town halls,” Walden told The Hill. But the voters “decided the Democrat brand didn’t have the right message, that you can’t just be against something.”

Trump last year narrowly won Georgia’s 6th District, which was vacated when Tom Price became secretary of Health and Human Services. 

Vulnerable Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.), a top 2018 Democratic target who voted for ObamaCare repeal in May, also called the Georgia victory a “surprise” and “impressive win.”

“Obviously, I wasn’t too confident about it, as the Democrats had this massive fundraising advantage and there was all of this enthusiasm” on the left, said Curbelo, who represents a district that Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton won last year.

But he said he wouldn’t take his foot off the gas after the Georgia win: “We always run like we’re behind. Either you run scared or unopposed.” 

Publicly, Democratic leaders aren’t panicking. Despite their four defeats in the Kansas, Montana, South Carolina and Georgia specials, Democrats said they see a silver lining.

“If you look at the numbers, these are all seats where just seven months ago [Republicans] won by double digits, and they were nail-biters after Trump takes office,” said Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), co-chair of the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee. “I think that shows that people have serious questions about whether the Trump agenda is working for them.

“I look at the results and say, ‘Let’s keep competing in places like Georgia and South Carolina where we didn’t necessarily compete before,’ ” he continued. “If people understand that we are for them and he has not delivered for them, I think 2018’s in play.”

To win back the House next year, Democrats need to pick up 24 seats.

Jordan Fabian contributed. 

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