Halftime for Special Election Bragging Rights

As South Carolina votes Tuesday, neither side in Trump referendum fight has an edge

This year’s special elections could be a more reliable bellwether of President Donald Trump’s effect on the political landscape, Hawkings writes. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
This year’s special elections could be a more reliable bellwether of President Donald Trump’s effect on the political landscape, Hawkings writes. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Posted May 2, 2017 at 5:04am

One of the many ways sports and politics are alike is that the “expectations game” is central to both.

The incessant boasting and trash talk by the players makes great theater, but no difference in the outcome of any match or any election. Over time, however, critical masses of paying customers will start shifting their passions elsewhere if the advance histrionics and the eventual outcomes don’t occasionally match.

And so it will be worth watching how, if at all, each party recalibrates its rhetoric after Tuesday’s first round of voting in the Midlands of South Carolina.

It’s one of the four special elections this spring where Democrats have been talking up their openings to seize House seats that had seemed firmly in Republican hands. And in each case, the GOP has been sounding just as confident of holding the line against any inroads fueled by voters’ remorse, Donald Trump having carried all the districts last fall while he was notably more popular than he’s ever been as president.

So far, Republicans have one clear if narrow win and another close contest remains in progress. So fans on both sides — who, in congressional contests, manifest themselves most importantly as campaign contributors — lack definitive reason yet for feeling either rewarded or bamboozled because of their loyalties.

By the time the specials quartet finishes in the third week in June, one camp is going to feel much more dispirited and hoodwinked than the other, with dangerous implications for recruiting and fundraising as the nationwide midterm campaign moves to the forefront.   

Whichever party ends up carrying the loser label in the miasmic war of perception is going to have a tougher time finding both candidates and cash for the long 2018 march.

History suggests that fate is likelier to befall the Democrats, who have been opening their checkbooks and pouring out their organizational hearts in all four contests this spring despite an underdog status that’s tough to miss in the collective electoral math.

If they hope to persuade their benefactors and their base that there’s a viable path to taking back the House next year, they will probably need to start by picking up at least one of these seats.

At the same time, Republicans run the risk of being derided as profligate underperformers unless they can protect the status quo across the board.

Imperfect predictor 

Special elections are a highly quirky subset of congressional politics, because there aren’t all that many and there’s no reliable pattern for when parochial concerns do more than the national mood to shape the outcome. So their usefulness in forecasting the political future, let alone the president’s political fate, is far from a sure thing.

In the first six months of both the Barack Obama and George W. Bush presidencies, there was just one special election in a House district remotely competitive between the parties. Democrats held an upstate New York seat in the spring of 2009 but it easily flipped to the GOP in the tea party tidal wave the next fall. Republicans snatched a swing district in southern Virginia in early 2001, but the party’s gain of eight seats the next year had little to do with factors from that race.

This time, the specials could be a more reliable bellwether of Trump’s effect on the landscape, not only because there’s such a relatively big bloc of contests scattered across the country but also because the president himself created all the openings by tapping incumbents for his Cabinet.

In the only race decided so far, for a Kansas seat vacated when Mike Pompeo became CIA director, Democrats only started talking like an upset was possible near the end of the quick campaign — but the party’s House political organization didn’t put any money where that mouth was. Partisans were left to claim only a pyrrhic sort of victory April 11 when their candidate James Thompson, a civil rights lawyer who sought to turn the contest into a vote of confidence in Trump, lost by only 7 points in territory Hillary Clinton lost by 27 points last fall.

But, since closeness only gets points in horseshoes and grenades, it’s Republican former state Treasurer Ron Estes who is the newest member of the 115th Congress.

There was no element of late-reveal viability in a wealthy, educated and increasingly politically competitive suburban Atlanta district that had been represented by Tom Price, who’s now Health and Human Services secretary. Democrat Jon Ossoff is a 30-year-old documentary filmmaker who did a short stint as a Hill staffer, but he was nonetheless able to grab global headlines by raising $8.3 million in a couple of months while framing his first bid for elective office as the best way to send Trump a strong early message of voter disapproval.

And yet, he’ll now have to collect even more — because on April 18, he drew 48 percent in the open primary, only a point more than Clinton’s district-wide share last fall and short of the majority needed to claim the seat outright against a field of 11 Republicans.

The top GOP vote-getter, former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel, raked in more than $1 million in the first week after she became Ossoff’s opponent — and $750,000 more with Trump at her side last week. And she now has until the June 20 runoff to raise millions more while honing a message that consolidates the president’s fans and skeptics in the local GOP.

Only then will the message be clear from what’s shaping up to become the most expensive special House election in American history. Either a Democratic neophyte will so demonize Trump that a purple district turns blue, or the GOP establishment will show its muscle and values are more than sufficient to overcome Trump’s weaknesses and will hold a seat the party’s counted on since 1979.

Big Sky aspirations

Another outside-the-box candidate, banjo-playing cowboy Rob Quist, also embodies the Democrats’ hopes of motivating liberal and labor activists, raising plenty of national money and turning enmity for Trump into a May 25 victory in Montana. The state’s solitary House seat came open with Ryan Zinke’s departure to run the Interior Department.

Montana has been reliably Republican in presidential elections and went for Trump by 21 points, but Democrats have won three of the state’s last four Senate contests and Gov. Steve Bullock is also a Democrat. (He won last year by defeating Republican millionaire Greg Gianforte, who’s now turned his attention and his checkbook to winning the open House seat.)

Democratic operatives in Montana say that, if the national party is serious about developing viability in all 50 states, the next three weeks is the opportune moment to prove so by investing in the state’s House race. But doing so, and then falling short, could create a bigger perception problem in the long haul. Which is why the party has invested only modestly thus far.

The open South Carolina seat could soon present the party with a similar decision.

Trump prevailed there by 19 points and Mick Mulvaney won re-election easily before taking on the task of White House budget director. But from 1983 to 2010, the district was represented by a conservative Democrat.

The backstory of the establishment-backed candidate in Tuesday’s Democratic primary is unusual only in that on paper he sounds more like a GOP politician: Archie Parnell is a 66-year-old millionaire lawyer who’s been a senior Goldman Sachs adviser, handled tax litigation for Exxon Mobil, was a Justice Department prosecutor and held staff jobs on the House Ways and Means Committee.

He’s undeniably running as someone eager to stomp on Trump’s coattails, however. And if he gets to the June 20 general election, he’ll be anxious to persuade the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the party’s donors nationwide that, behind his avuncular affect and corporate résumé, lurks a candidate positioned for a symbolically rich upset win that jumpstarts the party’s 2018 momentum.

A runoff in two weeks may be needed to decide the Republican candidate. Seven are running Tuesday and the trio best positioned to advance are prominent state House member Tommy Pope, former state Rep. Ralph Norman and former state party chief Chad Connelly.

For GOP donors and organizational forces, any nominee can be counted on to present an argument diametrically different than what his opponent will say: Trump aside, the district is fiscally and culturally conservative and so a Republican is the appropriate fit, meaning the Democrats are wasting time and money trying to turn an inexorable political tide.

Bragging rights for this special season can be claimed in seven weeks.