Thursday, April 13, 2017

5 Thoughts on Tuesday's Election

Tuesday night, while it wasn't the stunning battle-cry that a win would have been, Democrats had to have been pretty pleased with the results of a special election in Kansas.  The district, a Republican stronghold that Donald Trump won by over thirty points and which the previous incumbent, Mike Pompeo, easily won with 31 points, delivered a single-digit victory for State Treasurer Ron Estes over a political unknown.  That's equivalent to over a 20-point swing, something that the Republicans simply couldn't afford going forward with if it were to become a nationwide mood.  However, frequently people take the wrong things away from special elections, so I wanted to put in my two cents on what this does (and doesn't) mean for Democrats going forward.

Rep-elect. Ron Estes (R-KS)
1. Special Elections Mean Something...Except When They Don't

One of the things you're going to hear a lot of in comings days is "the Republicans are worried," which is probably accurate.  Despite what President Trump tweeted yesterday morning, the reality is that Tuesday night was an ominous sign; the Democrats had a no-name candidate, zilch money, and managed to get within 7-points in a district that Republicans crushed it in in 2016 (and that Republicans, not Democrats, had to spend money).  However, special elections aren't necessarily indicative of what happens in the following congressional election-more often than not they are products of their own race (since there's no national narrative informing the race).

Look, for example, at the 2004 elections.  Earlier that year, two Republican House seats in relatively red districts had gone for the Democrats, one in Kentucky (electing Ben Chandler) and one in South Dakota (electing Stephanie Herseth).  And yet, later that year the Democrats got walloped in red states, losing a number of Senate seats (including one in South Dakota), and watching the House Democrats have a net loss of three seats.  Other factors in this race (namely that Chandler and Herseth were particularly good candidates, both of whom managed to make it through the 2004 elections unscathed in the general), were more important, and so reading into the fatigue over Republicans in these districts would have been poor use of tea leaves.

That said, special elections can indicate the national mood is moving against one party.  The Senate election of Scott Brown in 2009 in deep-blue Massachusetts, for example, wouldn't have happened in a normal environment (even against Martha Coakley).  Surprise victories in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Illinois in 2008 showed the country was ready for a Democratic president again, even in hard-to-grab districts.  So the special elections can matter, but shouldn't be taken as validation on their own.

Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ)
2. The Win Didn't Happen...Except for Recruitment

The bigger victory for the Democrats last night, however, was in terms of recruitment.  Looking at a complete unknown like James Thompson nearly making it to Congress will surely make ambitious state legislators, mayors, and local aspiring politicos in more palatable districts take a second look at running in 2018.  That this could be the year that the Democrats are able to not only win big, but perhaps regain the majority against Trump would be a huge recruitment tool.

This probably won't just limit itself to the House.  In 2014, a year that was clearly looking like a major year for the Republicans, Rep. Cory Gardner jumped into the Senate race at the last minute, assuming that the once-invincible Sen. Mark Udall could be taken down (he was right, and it paid off in a big way for he and the GOP).  Heidi Heitkamp did the same thing in 2012.  While Democrats don't have a lot of opportunities, I suspect that people like Reps. Ruben Kihuen and Kyrsten Sinema may be more inclined to make a jump toward the other end of the Capitol, as will a number of Democrats exploring gubernatorial races if the atmosphere doesn't change.

This isn't something to take lightly; recruitment is critically important to winning or losing a seat.  It's likely that Gardner and Heitkamp were the only people that could have won those seats in those years, even with a favorable environment  Recruitment also can work backwards-in 2014 if the Democrats had managed to keep Tom Harkin, Max Baucus, Tim Johnson, and Jay Rockefeller around to run for another term, they may well have the Senate majority right now.  A retirement from someone like an Ileana Ros-Lehtinen or Peter King on the Republican side could be a huge issue for holding their seats in an unfavorable environment.

Jon Ossoff (D-GA)
3. Jon Ossoff Now Needs to Win

It's one thing to claim a moral victory, but you don't get to govern on moral victories, so the Democrats will need to sink a basket to prove this momentum is real.  This probably was never going to be possible in Kansas-4, but Georgia-6 is another story entirely.

An open primary where the top two finishers advance to the runoff (provided no one hits 50%), the Democrats are pinning all of their hopes on Jon Ossoff, a political newbie who has managed to raise unfathomably large sums of money ($8.6 million, which outperforms most Senate candidates), and is polling very well.  The 50% marker, though, is tough in a district Rep. Tom Price won handily in 2014, though hardly impossible as Hillary Clinton only lost the district by 1.5%.

The problem here is that this is the sort of district the Democrats need to win if Nancy Pelosi is going to become Speaker of the House in 2019.  It'll be difficult to make the argument that they have a legit shot of winning a house of Congress back if they can't pick up a seat this marginal.  Admittedly, it's a seat with a Republican bent, and expecting a 20-point swing is obscene, but you really only need Ossoff to outperform Clinton by 5-points (reasonable) to get there.  If the Democrats can't take this (either in the initial election or the runoff), I wonder if talks of a wave may be premature.

DNC Chair Tom Perez (D-MD)
4. Tom Perez is in a Bind

Democrats were criticizing DNC Chair Perez all over social media Tuesday night, and potentially with good reason.  Thompson was within striking distance here, and neither the DNC nor the DCCC spent a dime on the race (though I did read they sent some volunteers at the last minute).

Perez has a difficult rope to walk going forward-he's being tasked with winning back at least one house of Congress in 2018, but will have to do with finite resources.  Spending them on a sharp-red district, one that would be difficult to defend in 2018 even if they had pulled off the miracle Tuesday night, is arguably a waste of money.  But the Democrats are clamoring for a "50-State Strategy" and it cannot be lost in the conversation that Thompson was a Bernie Sanders supporter, a branch of the party that Perez needs to win over (and that is leery of him after he beat Keith Ellison for the post).  Perez, who plans to spend an enormous amount of money in Georgia once the runoff begins, perhaps needs an Ossoff victory more than anyone, as it'll look terrible if he ends up losing a seat that he spent on, and Democrats can point to KS-4 as a missed opportunity.

Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI)
5. Paul Ryan's Job Just Got Harder

While on the surface Paul Ryan's job just got easier (he now has an establishment Republican to rely upon in getting legislation passed), in reality this is a tough sell for him, because he has to balance the Freedom Caucus and moderates who are going to be increasingly unlikely to take risks if they aren't getting much reward or are putting their careers in jeopardy.

Republican moderates have to be seeing Tuesday night as a warning sign-a 20-point swing may be something that Estes can afford, but people in marginal districts (or ones that Hillary Clinton won) certainly cannot hemorrhage that many Trump supporters or see their numbers that depressed.  The AHCA, tax reform, even infrastructure will become a tough sell if the Republicans cannot guarantee that people like Erik Paulsen or Darrell Issa are safe with their Clinton-supporting bases.  Expect a lot more defections from Republicans against Trump/Ryan if this becomes the new normal, particularly if Ossoff wins.

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