There are two schools of thought on Kansas’s special election last week. One, straight from Donald Trump holds it was a great victory for the party and Ron Estes was a terrific candidate (note: both ideas are wrong). The other holds it heralds a Democratic wave building and the race was a referendum on Trump. In losing so narrowly, Democrats won (simple, right).
Certainly, Democrats can savor their moral victory. They turned a 27 point Trump district into a seven point Congressional victory for the GOP, perhaps forecasting a Democratic wave. Indeed, Democrats were quick to build on this narrative, ““There are over 100 Republicans sitting in districts that wouldn’t have been heavily GOP enough to overcome the D swing we saw in KS tonight,” Democratic data specialist Tom Bonier observed on Twitter.
Of course, not every single district is going to flip 20 points even in wave for various reasons. Some incumbents are more popular than others, the quality of challengers matter and spending by the parties and 3rd party groups could swing key voters opinions.
Kansas really leads to two questions heading into Georgia’s special election next week. Was this really a fluky special election defined by unique circumstances? More importantly for Democrats, did Thompson’s close run give Democrats a strategy for 2018?
The short answer is yes and no. Special elections are quirky, low-turnout affairs where voter intensity matters. Democrats had this going for them hands down with the unpopularity of incumbent GOP Governor, Sam Brownback.
Brownback’s tenure has been defined by deep tax cuts implemented in 2011 and 2012 that have led to cutbacks in education spending. The state Supreme Court has blocked any effort the Governor has made to cut spending. As a result, Brownback’s approval is a horrid mid-20s.
Ron Estes, the Republican now heading to Congress, was Brownback’s Treasurer and supporting many of the Governor’s policies. As a result, he was tied to Brownback. Even Thompson acknowledged this in the way his campaign tied Estes to Brownback but refused to train its fire on Trump until the very end. Still, Thompson believes it was Trump that won the election for Estes stating, “I probably shouldn’t say this, but Mr. Estes didn’t beat us. It took the president of the United States.”
Still, it is difficult to separate what is happening at the federal level from the state level and relate it to a special election. Fortunately, Fivethirtyeight did. Using 2014 as a proxy and controlling for incumbency and the political environment, GOP House candidates ran eight points worse than they should have (remember, this was when Brownback was reelected).
Of course, eight points is a far cry from 20 so national factors probably did play a part. Thompson obviously had momentum and enthusiasm on his side and it showed in the depressed turnout for Republicans. Still, Republicans came out on Election Day.
There is plenty of evidence the GOP base is feeling a little sapped. The party has seen drop-offs in turnout in legislative special elections, saw a 14 point drop in an urban LA special election and now Kansas. GOP turnout dropped over 60 percent from 2014 while Democratic turnout increased over 30 percent. Even considering this was a special election which tends to hurt the majority party cannot explain all of the shift.
Even so, it is not a lot of data to go on. Special elections are not that predictive. For example, Democrats won every special election in the run-up to the 2010 midterms? Democrats and Republicans split special election results before 2012 (swapping a heavy red for a heavily blue district).
Brownback is merely one Governor and there are not dozens of him. In Georgia, Nathan Deal is popular and sports a 63 percent approval rating. The same for Montana Governor Steve Bullock. Many of the GOP candidates in GA-6 are run of the mill conservative or Trump supporting candidates.
It’s easy to run against an unpopular figure but to have a message that transcends America’s political divides is tougher. Thompson won Wichita Proper but lost every other county in the district. This, even as Thompson ran as a moderate on gun control and abortion.
Daily Kos and Sanders acolytes say Thompson style progressive can appeal in red America. Thompson might have been a moderate on some issues but was progressive on others. Speaking on Healthcare, “I like the idea of single payer, [but] I don’t see it getting accomplished in our current political environment.” Thompson was also unabashedly liberal on combating climate change, protecting LGBT rights and providing undocumented immigrants with pathways to citizenship. Indeed, Thompson believes he already won by improving Democratic prospects in the district. Of course, Dukakis did better than Mondale. A loss is still a loss.
Progressives have never really truly tested the hypothesis economic populism can flip a red, blue-collar district blue. Especially when confronted with Trumpist style populism that stresses key social cleavages, good government, environmental deregulation and mixes in some social conservatism for fun.
Thompson’s campaign hit a wall the Clinton campaign is familiar with. Despite stressing unity and the like, voters still opted for the Republican message. How is that for winning blue-collar voters?
Georgia’s 6th District is not even close to KS-4. GA-6 is economically booming, diverse and affluent. It takes in some of Atlanta’s richest suburbs and has a median income of over $80,000. It is also full of young, affluent, college educated voters of the type that rejected Trump in November.
So, Thompson’s talk of pragmatism and stopping environmental deregulation obviously does not translate to Ossoff, who has run as much on bringing 21st century jobs to America as being a check on Trump. But, here is the rub, Ossoff’s talk of 21st century jobs will not help Rob Quist in Montana. Montana voters don’t make $80,000 and are not racially diverse and young.
Quist, the country-singing Berniecrat, has embraced progressive populism and tried to match it to Montana values. He is running against a wealthy businessman so it might have some success. After-all, the Big Sky state has a long history of Democrats successfully running as “prairie populists,” including Sen. Jon Tester, Bullock, and his predecessor, Brian Schweitzer. Quist is simply trying to follow the path they have charted.
Similarly, Ossoff’s performance cannot tell Quist whether he should focus on Trump or not. Trump is about even in approval in GA-6 but in KS-4 and likely in Montana the President sports positive approval ratings.
Ossoff also has the benefit of enjoying a split GOP field because of the unique jungle primary Georgia uses where all candidates, regardless of party, run on the same ballot and the top two vote getters advance to the general. Ossoff and other Democrats are getting about 45 percent of the vote but Republicans combined still eclipse their numbers. Voter registration has only increased three percent since November and early voting is about dead even between Republicans and Democrats (though Ossoff clearly leads among these voters in surveys). Still, Republicans are showing a late surge.
Such details illustrate the challenge Democrats face in building a wave. Even if one considers the Democratic advantage on the generic ballot of five to seven points, Democrats have underperformed their numbers in every election since 2000 (grain of salt anybody). Combined with other issues the party face including gerrymandering, geographic clustering and ideological rigidity, appealing to different sets of voters across the country is difficult.
The Clinton camp learned this the hard way when they found what works in college educated suburbs and urban enclaves is not what works in down-scale/manufacturing base suburbs and rural areas.
Kansas should give Democrats a morale boost and it should rightly worry Republicans. But, Thompson never showed he had a strategy to win over rural voters. Polls show Ossoff is failing to win over suburban Republicans and Independents. Special elections are quirky and by definition unique. Translating their results to national politics is usually difficult if not impossible.
In the end, this means Democrats continue to struggle to solve their biggest issue; a message that transcends or at least sidesteps the deep political, economic and cultural divides in America. Until they do, a wave seems impossible for the party to generate.