The surprise win by Donald J. Trump in the presidential election in November 2016 left Republicans in control of the White House, United States House of Representatives, and the United States Senate. Since then, Democrats have been itching to claim victory in an important race in an effort to begin tipping the scales back in their favor.
Their first opportunity was in Kansas where Democrat James Thompson faced Republican Ron Estes to fill the House seat left vacant when President Trump appointed Mike Pompeo to head the CIA. Trump had won the area by twenty-seven points but Thompson lost by only seven, even though Estes was backed by multiple PACs and the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) spent $130,000 to help his campaign. The average donation to Thompson was $20 and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) spent nothing to help him win.
Next up was Montana. A House seat became open when incumbent Ryan Zinke was chosen to be the U.S. Secretary of the Interior. Democrat Rob Quist and Republican Greg Gianforte battled for the seat, with the latter winning, even though he had assaulted a reporter on the eve of the election. The race set a record for expenditures. Donations to Gianforte totaled nearly $5 million while Quist raked in over $6.5 million with only $340,000 coming from the DCCC.
Two special elections were held on June 20, 2017. In Georgia, Democrat Jon Ossoff was defeated by Republican Karen Handel to fill the seat vacated by Tom Price when he became Secretary of Health and Human Services. In South Carolina, Republican Ralph Norman beat Democrat Archie Parnell to replace Mick Mulvaney who was appointed director of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget. In the Georgia race, each candidate spent about $30 million, including nearly $5 million spent on Ossoff by the DCCC. The failed attempt to have Ossoff elected as a repudiation of Trump met with derision from Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway who, after the results were in, tweeted “Thanks to everyone who breathlessly and snarkily proclaimed #GA06 as a ‘referendum on POTUS @realDonaldTrump’. You were right. #winning,” and “Laughing my #Ossoff.”
Four special election losses in a row have Democrats asking what went wrong. The glass-half-full crowd contends nothing went wrong and the fact their candidates barely lost in districts considered Republican strongholds is a sign of hope, a sign that, even if Republican voters aren’t turning against their party because of Trump, Democrats are finding new motivations to get out and vote. On the other hand, that motivation may not extend as far as they would like since low turnout by African Americans is being cited as one possible cause for the losses in Georgia and South Carolina. The campaigns themselves are being blamed for waiting until late in the game to even make a serious effort to connect with black voters. Others point to a division within the party, while Republicans work to cast Democrats as out-of-touch with the average American.
While the sitting president’s party traditionally loses seats during the midterm elections, if Democrats really want to make 2018 a referendum on and rebuke of Trump, they need to find answers regarding why they lost these special elections and, more importantly, why they lost the presidential election in 2016.