Special Elections Reflections By Heather E. Yates
Democrats and Republicans have been more introspective following the final special election of 2017. The difficulties of extrapolating from special election results are commonly understood. Special elections can encompass unusual conditions not observed in regular election cycles, yet did reveal some noteworthy trends ahead of the midterm elections.
The GA-6 made campaign finance history and influential Republicans took notice. Charles and David Koch subsequently announced they will invest several hundreds of millions of dollars in the 2018 midterm campaign and are meeting with top conservative donors to strategize.
While many Republicans are feeling energized in the wake of the special elections, moderate Republicans are less enthusiastic. Representative Martha McSally (R-AZ), for instance, expressed concern about a damaged Republican brand thanks to Donald Trump. Trump’s tweets are a distraction, McSally explained, that are being held against GOP members of Congress, irrespective of their performance. Earlier today Trump tweeted a crude insult of Morning Joe’s co-host Mika Brzezinski that was widely condemned by Congressional Republicans.
Democrats have their own problems in failing to secure a victory in Georgia last week after falling just a few points shy of winning the election outright in the first round of voting. Democrats framed the special elections as a referendum on the Trump presidency, but that narrative may have been issued prematurely, just months into his administration.
Candidate recruitment for the Democrats, a critical function of party organizations, was also lacking. Democratic challengers in these special elections were regularly referred to as the “generic” Democrat- a candidate who is a relatively unknown quantity. Generic candidates tend to have difficulty generating enthusiasm because they are, in effect, a “placeholder” on the ballot.
On the plus side, Democratic turnout was stronger this year than last, suggesting Republican margins in competitive districts may be shrinking. Moreover, the latest Quinnipiac Poll found rising approval for Democrats as President Trump’s job approval rating hovers at historically low levels, a particular concern for moderate Republicans in marginal districts.
So the special elections were a clear victory for Republicans, but challenges lurk beneath the surface for both parties. Typically over 90 percent of Congressional incumbents are reelected, but the president’s party also typically loses seats in midterm elections. How each party responds to their challenges will determine who gains the edge moving forward.
Heather E. Yates (@heatheryatesphd) is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Central Arkansas and the author of The Politics of Emotions, Candidates, and Choices (Palgrave).