All politics is local: how the 2017 special elections may impact the mid-terms

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(Original post at Tremr)

On the surface of things, the recent spate of special elections has not gone well for the Democrats. With absences to be filled following President Trump’s cabinet nominations, the Democratic Party lost all four special elections that have been held so far in 2017, most recently missing out on Georgia’s 6th and South Carolina’s 5th congressional districts.

Yet whilst Democrats may be disheartened by their recent electoral performance, there are reasons to suggest they are in a stronger position for the 2018 mid-terms than these latest results suggest.

All four special elections were held in Republican strongholds, seats that the Republicans were likely to hold if Donald Trump’s momentum was maintained. Ostensibly, four losses might suggest that Trump’s 54.4% disapproval rating has had little impact on voting intentions, but the races have been closer than many expected.

In April, Kansas’s 4th congressional district voted to replace incumbent Mike Pompeo, the new Director of the CIA who was re-elected with 61% of the vote in the 2016 general election.

Kansas State Treasurer Ron Estes may have secured the seat for the GOP, but the Democratic candidate James Thompson slashed the Republican margin from 31 points to just 7. The result was the closest that the Democrats have come to retaking the seat since losing it in 1994.

Montana at-large’s special election came to national prominence in May after Republican candidate Greg Gianforte body-slammed a Guardian reporter the day before polls closed.

Two thirds of votes in Montana were cast early, and so the impact of Gianforte’s assault was minimised, but Gianforte’s 6 point victoryover Democrat Rob Quist was again a closer race than many anticipated. The previous incumbent Ryan Zinke, Trump’s new Secretary of the Interior, won the seat by 16 points in 2016.

June 20th brought two special elections in South Carolina and Georgia, and once again Republican margins were slashed, from 20 points to 3.2 points and 23 points to 3.8 points respectively. The Democrats channelled tens of millions of dollars into Jon Ossoff’s Georgia race, believed by many to be their best chance of retaking a seat from the Republicans. Few anticipated just how close the contest in South Carolina would be.

The Democrats are far from blameless for their losses so far in 2017. Take the South Carolina race, for example; Democrat Archie Parnell received just $250,000 from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, whilst the contest for Georgia’s 6th congressional district was the most expensive House race in history.

Both Ossoff and Parnell lost by under 4 points, despite vastly different levels of funding. If some of Ossoff’s money could have been redirected, the House Democratic Caucus might have one new member right now.

Likewise, the dearth of quality candidates has hampered the Democrats’ chances of ousting House Republicans. All four candidates were relatively inexperienced in politics; lawyers Thompson and Parnell ran against more experienced Republican candidates, for example.

Even in Montana, where neither candidate had ever held elected office, Greg Gianforte’s business acumen prepared him better for the race than Rob Quist’s vagueness on specific policies.

Yet the closeness of these races cannot be denied. As Matthew Yglesias reports in Vox, Democrats are outperforming expectations by consolidating Hillary Clinton’s wins and building support in white-working class areas. With the President’s unprecedented disapproval rating, the Democrats can and should think about how to capitalise on the political climate and take back the House of Representatives in 2018.

To do so, the Democrats must analyse what message will be most effective to send voters, and target districts more effectively. Without a win to their name it’s unclear how successful anti-Trump rhetoric will be in expelling sitting Republicans, and as Gabriel Debenedetti highlights for Politico, Trump’s popularity varies wildly from state to state.

Gianforte and Georgia Republican Karen Handel employed inverse strategies, with the former aligning himself with the President and the latter barely mentioning him, yet both won their races.

What becomes clear when analysing the 2017 special elections is that candidates must be tailored to their district. The Democrats may need to represent a spectrum of political views, incorporating both left wing progressives and centrists to become reminiscent of the “big-tent” party it once was, to most ruthlessly target marginal seats.

Yet uniting such a politically diverse party could then become problematic, and a battle between the two factions could potentially inhibit the 2020 Presidential election.

The Democratic Party’s national brand has been described as “toxic” by Ohio Representative Tim Ryan, and establishment figures such as Nancy Pelosi played a key role in Republican attack ads in the special elections. To counter the party’s unpopularity on a national level, local politics will once again be crucial.

Following the resignation of Republican Jason Chaffetz, a special election will be held in Utah’s 3rd congressional district on or around 7th November. Though likely to remain Republican, the Democrats should use this opportunity to practise candidate selection and tailor their message for the region. As Tip O’Neill once said, “all politics is local.”

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