So one special election in 2017 is in the books and by the sounds of it on Leftist websites and social media one would think a political earthquake struck Kansas. In the race to succeed Mike Pompeo in the 4th Congressional District, State treasurer Ron Estes beat his Democratic opponent by seven percentage points. Trump won this district in 2016 by 27 points and Pompeo won by 31 points before moving onto the CIA.
Comparing Estes to Trump or Pompeo’s previous performances is a useless exercise. Unlike the children at DailyKos who are crowing about their “victory” which is a loss by any other name, special elections do not necessarily foretell a party’s projected performance in the next midterm elections. History proves that the party in power in the White House loses seats in the House in midterm elections. Thus, if Trump continues to drag low approval ratings into 2018, it could be a serious drag on Republican candidates. A better indicator of ultimate winners in special elections is the Cook PVI. Kansas’ 4th District is rated +15 Republican which makes it a fairly reliable GOP district, but certainly NOT the most red district in America (that honor belongs to TX-11 at +32).
In fact, it is about an average Republican district. So why all the Democratic optimism? The Democratic opponent- James Thompson- is self civil rights lawyer while Estes was the state treasurer. Thompson made this race about Trump and this was the first test of Trumpism in electoral politics. There are a few factors that affect the outcomes of special elections and the first is the local nature of the race.
By design, House races have a more local, parochial dynamic at work. This may not have been a mini-referendum on Trump as much as it was a referendum on Kansas Governor Sam Brownback who suffers from the worst approval rating of any incumbent governor at 23%. He remains dead last among Governors according to “Morning Consult” and has sat there through their three most recent polls. Being the state treasury secretary for the most unpopular Governor in the United States is clearly baggage.
Another factor that affected the relatively narrow margin of victory- by KS-04 standards- is voter turnout. Overall, voter turnout in special elections runs about 62% behind turnout in a midterm or presidential election year. In fact, turnout in this special election was down exactly 62% for Republicans and down 32% for Democrats compared against the 2016 general election in the district. That likely explains the bulk of the reason for the relatively close margin of victory. Combined with the connection to an unpopular Governor, Estes still managed to win and that is all that really counts in politics.
The next special election will take place on April 18th in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District to replace Tom Price who moved onto HHS in Trump’s cabinet. That will be followed by another special election on May 25th to replace Montana’s At-Large seat for Ryan Zinke’s replacement (who moved onto the Interior Department in Trump’s cabinet).
As has been noted elsewhere on this site, the GA-06 race is an anomaly in that it is basically a huge jungle primary with a lot of candidates- most of them Republican. The top two will advance to a June 20th runoff if no one reaches 50% of the vote, which is highly unlikely given so many candidates. Thus, we can expect the dolts on the Left to keep beating the drums and extolling the fact that their man came in first in this jungle primary situation. That is an easy task when the Republicans have several higher profile candidates fighting one another for a finite number of votes. Clearly, this will be a Democrat versus Republican come June 20th and provided turnout is high, the GOP has a good chance of retaining this seat.
DailyKos describes the situation as a “Republican freak out.” They may this claim because the NRCC and other conservative groups are pumping money into the Georgia and Montana races. By contrast, they put $150,000 into the Kansas race near the end of the campaign. Additionally, Donald Trump, Jr. will be campaigning in Montana in the coming weeks.
Instead of a GOP freak-out, perhaps it is just playing it cautiously and not leaving things to chance knowing they have an unpopular president sitting in the White House. Instead of a Republican freak out, perhaps it is really a Democratic waste of money which is just fine and dandy in my book. Unlike the situation in Kansas, Republican Governor Nathan Deal sports a very respectable 57% approval rating and three GOP candidates have an association with Deal- Karen Handel, Judson Hill and Dan Moody. Most experts believe that for Democratic front runner Jon Ossoff to have any chance in a runoff, he must pull about 41% of the April 18th vote. Regardless, expect both sides to keep pumping money and effort into this race through June.
As for Montana, this seat is rated +11 for the GOP which would put it in about the same category as KS-04. Hence, depending on turnout, one should expect a close race here also. Whenever a seat switched party hands in a special election, the average PVI score for the party in power is 11.4. If history is an indication, that puts Montana’s lone seat in the cross-hairs.
It should be mentioned that district lines change every ten years due to redistricting. Also, demographic dynamics should be considered. Georgia’s 6th district encompasses the suburbs of Atlanta and is considered upscale with a median household income of over $83,000. Additionally, the population is educated. Trump barely won this district in 2016 by 1.5 points at 48.3% which was down considerably from Romney’s 60.8% in 2012 and 23.3% margin of victory over Obama. Should the Democrats win this seat, it is likely less a referendum on Trump (he isn’t that popular here to begin with) and more a factor of changing demographic dynamics within the district.
With the impending announcement that Pennsylvania Republican Tom Marino will be Trump’s drug czar thus vacating that state’s 10th Congressional District, we may have another special election in 2017. The Cook PVI there is +16 GOP. The other special election is in South Carolina’s 5th District to replace Mick Mulvaney (May 2nd primary and June 20th election). We do not hear a peep from the Left or Democrats about these races.