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The Not-So-Special Elections

Of 5 upcoming contests, only Georgia race presents chance of a partisan flip

Karen Handel is hoping to succeed Tom Price in Georgia’s 6th District, but first, she faces an April 18 jungle primary with 17 other candidates. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Karen Handel is hoping to succeed Tom Price in Georgia’s 6th District, but first, she faces an April 18 jungle primary with 17 other candidates. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Money is pouring into the suburbs north of Atlanta, the site of the first competitive congressional election of Donald Trump’s presidency.

Georgia’s 6th District, left vacant by the confirmation of Tom Price as Health and Human Services Secretary, is one of five special elections taking place across the country this spring, but the only one which offers much of a chance of a partisan flip.

It’s been a reliably Republican seat, which Price won by 23 points last fall. But Trump’s underperformance here among well-educated, affluent voters, and the unpredictability of the upcoming jungle primary is fueling liberals’ hopes that they can pick off this district. A victory, they contend, would send a larger message heading into 2018 about congressional elections as a referendum on Trump. 

(In a jungle primary, candidates from all parties run against each other and anyone who gets more than 50 percent is the winner. If no candidate clears that threshold, the top two finishers, regardless of party affiliation, advance to a subsequent runoff.)

None of the five contests pose a threat to the Republicans’ majority in the House. Four of the five seats have been under GOP control, and save for Georgia and to a lesser extent, Montana, they’re all but guaranteed to remain red districts in 2017 and beyond.

“It’s not like we lost these districts by 5 points last time,” one Democratic strategist said of Georgia’s 6th District and Montana’s at-large House seat.

Still, Republicans aren’t taking these races for granted. The super PAC tied to House GOP leadership is already spending on television ads in both Georgia and Montana to attack Democratic candidates.

Running in the age of Trump

Voters in these states will head to the polls as many of this year’s biggest legislative fights play out on Capitol Hill.

For Democrats, a legislative session provides fresh opportunity to tie Republican candidates to the president. That strategy didn’t work so well for them last year, but Democrats argue that the toxicity of President Trump is much stronger than that of candidate Trump.

At the same time, a rocky start to his presidency may give some candidates greater cover to distance themselves from Trump in places where he was unpopular last fall. 

Both of those dynamics are playing out in Georgia, where 18 candidates — including 11 Republicans and five Democrats — are running together in the April 18 jungle primary. It’s unlikely any of them will surpass 50 percent of the vote, so the final election will be decided in a June 20 runoff.

The field includes two self-described Trump loyalists, who have been trying to one-up each other in demonstrating their allegiance to the president. That may be an unconventional strategy in a district Trump carried by less than 2 points, according to calculations by Daily Kos Elections — a far cry from the more than 60 percent Mitt Romney and John McCain achieved there as presidential nominees in 2012 and 2008, respectively. But special elections often attract the most extreme base of each party, and with a field this large, anything could happen. 

Other Republican candidates, like former Georgia secretary of State Karen Handel, are keeping a more measured tone on Trump. The previously unsuccessful gubernatorial and senatorial candidate entered the race promising to fight “the status quo,” but has signaled there will be times when she does not support the president. 

On the Democratic side, liberals have coalesced around former Capitol Hill staffer and documentary filmmaker Jon Ossoff, who’s trying to capitalize on Trump’s relative unpopularity in this affluent suburban district. He’s attracted significant fundraising support from the Daily Kos website, and reportedly banked nearly $3 million since the beginning of the year. 

He’s been endorsed by Georgia Democratic Reps. Hank Johnson and John Lewis, while the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is sending nine staffers to the district.

The Congressional Leadership Fund, the major Republican super PAC that plays in House races, answered the liberal side’s growing excitement about Ossoff with a $1.1 million ad buy. The spots question his experience and honesty against a backdrop of college footage of the now 30-year-old candidate dressed up as the Star Wars character Han Solo.

Does Ossoff have a chance? “It’s a possibility,” said Rob Simms, former executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee, who’s now working for Handel. “How likely? I don’t know,” he added. 

The Georgia special is an increasingly popular subject of national media and activist attention, and it’s tempting to cast the race as a referendum on Trump.

But in a district where Trump’s poor showing was more a reflection of the candidate that it was of the health of the GOP, winning at the congressional level remains an uphill climb for Democrats. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Leans Republican

Safer seats

After Georgia, the special election for Montana’s at-large House seat on May 25 offers Democrats’ next best chance of picking up a seat this spring.

Former GOP Rep. Ryan Zinke was confirmed as Interior secretary on March 1 and since then, both parties have chosen their nominees at special nominating conventions.

Democrats settled on Rob Quist, a musician in the Mission Mountain Wood Band. The first-time candidate will face wealthy businessman Greg Gianforte, last year’s unsuccessful GOP gubernatorial candidate, who’ll likely have as much money as he needs to win this race. 

Democrats targeted the at-large seat in 2016, but Zinke won re-election by 16 points, and Trump carried Montana by more than 20 points. Inside Elections rates the seat Solid Republican, and so far, national Democrats have shown no interest in investing here again. 

The Congressional Leadership Fund, on the other hand, is in. The GOP super PAC launched $700,000 in TV ads attacking Quist the day after he secured the Democratic nod. 

In South Carolina’s 5th District, the only true contest so far has been the GOP primary set for May 2, with a primary runoff scheduled two weeks later. While the seat won’t change party hands, a new GOP member could help shape the party’s House conference, which lost a Freedom Caucus member in Mick Mulvaney when he became Trump’s director of the Office of Management and Budget.

In another safe GOP seat, a handful of Kansas Republicans denied Trump’s team the first opportunity to add another ally in Congress. The GOP nominating convention in the 4th District selected establishment candidate Ron Estes, the state treasurer, over a former Trump campaign staffer, and he’s all but guaranteed to win the general election on April 11. 

Democrats have a safe seat of their own up for grabs. California’s Xavier Becerra resigned to become his state’s attorney general. The jungle primary to replace him in the 34th District will be on April 4, followed by a runoff in June. Elected officials have rallied behind Democratic Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez.

Lessons from the specials

In their quest to pick up 24 seats in 2018, Democrats are facing dueling precedents. On the one hand, the president’s party has lost House seats in 18 of the last 20 midterm elections. On the other hand, midterm turnout is usually less favorable for them. 

This spring’s special elections — specifically Georgia — will be viewed as a barometer for which way 2018 will go. But operatives from both parties know it’s dangerous to interpret localized special elections as harbingers of things to come.

“There’s a heck of a lot of time left in the cycle for a lot of things to happen,” Simms said.

Democrats learned that lesson in the 2010 cycle, when they won special elections for open seats in New York and Pennsylvania, before losing 63 House seats in the November 2010 midterms.

What special elections can do, Simms said, is allow the committees and outside groups to test data and messaging strategies they want to employ in the next “on-year” election.

Not to mention, a special election victory can boost morale — and potentially fundraising — heading into the midterms. 

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