Off to the Races

Big Warning Signs for the GOP

The Kansas special election was too close for comfort for Republicans, and Georgia could be much worse.

Former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel
AP Photo/John Bazemore
Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
April 13, 2017, 8 p.m.

The bot­tom didn’t fall out for Re­pub­lic­ans in this week’s House spe­cial elec­tion to re­place newly-min­ted CIA Dir­ect­or Mike Pom­peo, but a yel­low cau­tion light is def­in­itely flash­ing for the GOP.

State Treas­urer Ron Estes, the Re­pub­lic­an nom­in­ee in Kan­sas’s 4th Dis­trict, beat civil rights at­tor­ney James Thompson, the Demo­crat­ic stand­ard-bear­er, by 7 points, 53 to 46 per­cent. This wouldn’t be a bad mar­gin if Pom­peo had not won the dis­trict by 31 points last Novem­ber, Pres­id­ent Trump had not car­ried it by 27 points (60 to 33 per­cent), and Mitt Rom­ney not pre­vailed by 26 points (62 to 36 per­cent) in 2012. The 4th Dis­trict has a Cook Polit­ic­al Re­port Par­tis­an Vot­ing In­dex (PVI) of R+15, mean­ing that it tends to vote about 15 points more Re­pub­lic­an than the coun­try as a whole, mak­ing it the 74th-most-Re­pub­lic­an dis­trict in the coun­try. In oth­er words, a Re­pub­lic­an should have won eas­ily there. With an­oth­er spe­cial elec­tion com­ing up Tues­day in Geor­gia’s 6th Dis­trict to re­place new Health and Hu­man Ser­vices Sec­ret­ary Tom Price, the GOP needs to be very nervous—this dis­trict is not nearly as ruby-red Re­pub­lic­an as the one in Kan­sas is.

Every con­gres­sion­al elec­tion has unique cir­cum­stances, mak­ing un­in­formed gen­er­al­iz­a­tions dan­ger­ous. In the Kan­sas race, Estes had a bur­den to carry on sev­er­al levels. The biggest was that Kan­sas’s fin­ances are a dis­aster, the res­ult—at least in my mind—of overly ag­gress­ive tax cuts pro­moted by Gov. Sam Brown­back, Estes, and many oth­ers in the more con­ser­vat­ive wing of the Kan­sas GOP (the state GOP has two very dis­cern­ible and com­bat­ive wings). But that split in the party does not be­gin to ex­plain this dra­mat­ic un­der­per­form­ance. Pre-spe­cial-elec­tion GOP polling showed that in­tens­ity among Demo­crats in the dis­trict was sig­ni­fic­antly high­er than among Re­pub­lic­ans, a prob­lem which a con­gres­sion­al ma­jor­ity party that is also hold­ing the White House has to worry about in midterm elec­tions.

Both party cam­paign com­mit­tees played the Kan­sas spe­cial elec­tion smartly. The Demo­crat­ic Con­gres­sion­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee and the Kan­sas Demo­crat­ic Party did not spend any­thing un­til the last couple of days be­fore the elec­tion; to do so would have been the kiss of death in such a rock-ribbed Re­pub­lic­an dis­trict. They wanted this cam­paign to fly un­der the radar and not be­come a red-Re­pub­lic­an-versus-blue-Demo­crat­ic race in the minds of re­li­ably con­ser­vat­ive GOP voters. The the­ory was to let GOP voters stay leth­ar­gic, some dis­il­lu­sioned with what is go­ing on with their party in Wash­ing­ton, while the Demo­crat­ic voters in the dis­trict would vent their an­ger at Pres­id­ent Trump and the GOP. This reas­on­ing may not im­press lib­er­al act­iv­ists, arm­chair ana­lysts on the Left, and the net­roots, but any­one ar­tic­u­lat­ing the op­pos­ite line pat­ently doesn’t un­der­stand con­gres­sion­al elec­tions in gen­er­al or spe­cial elec­tions in par­tic­u­lar.

The Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Con­gres­sion­al Com­mit­tee and GOP con­sult­ants saw they had a prob­lem in an un­ex­pec­ted place in the last week and went to DE­F­CON 1. On short no­tice and with a ton of rob­ocalls—from Trump, Vice Pres­id­ent Mike Pence, House Speak­er Paul Ry­an, and oth­ers—along with an elec­tion-eve vis­it from Sen. Ted Cruz, they man­aged to stir up enough Re­pub­lic­an voters, par­tic­u­larly in rur­al and small-town areas out­side of Sedg­wick County (Wichita), to pull Estes across the fin­ish line. Late GOP polling showed that among 4th Dis­trict voters fol­low­ing the race most closely, the Demo­crat had ac­tu­ally pulled slightly ahead. The Cook Polit­ic­al Re­port rat­ing for the race shif­ted from “Sol­id Re­pub­lic­an” to “Likely Re­pub­lic­an” on Thursday, April 6, and one more notch to “Lean Re­pub­lic­an” on Monday, the day be­fore the elec­tion.

The Geor­gia spe­cial elec­tion com­ing up on Tues­day is a jungle-primary elec­tion, as the top two fin­ish­ers of the 18 filed can­did­ates, in­clud­ing 11 Re­pub­lic­ans and five Demo­crats, will go in­to a June 20 run­off. The dis­trict is primar­ily At­lanta sub­urbs, centered on Roswell. Rom­ney beat Pres­id­ent Obama by 24 points there, 61 to 37 per­cent, but Trump pre­vailed by only a point and a half, 48 to 47 per­cent, last year. That re­flects some change in the nature of the dis­trict but more that this is a tra­di­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an, up­scale sub­urb­an dis­trict rather than a Trump-ori­ented, small-town, or rur­al and pop­u­list one. The PVI for this dis­trict is R+8, mak­ing it the 165th-most-Re­pub­lic­an dis­trict in the coun­try. Most of the ac­tion in con­gres­sion­al elec­tions hap­pens in swing dis­tricts that are between R+5 and D+5.

There are five Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ates split­ting up most of the GOP vote and only one Demo­crat, Jon Os­soff—a 30-year-old former con­gres­sion­al staffer and film doc­u­ment­ari­an who had raised an as­ton­ish­ing $8.3 mil­lion as of March 29, largely in out-of-state, small dona­tions from a very agit­ated Demo­crat­ic and lib­er­al donor base. While Demo­crats main­tained a largely hands-off status in Kan­sas, in Geor­gia there is a full-court press, with at least nine DCCC field staff on the ground. Demo­crats are work­ing hard to get Os­soff across the fin­ish line on Tues­day, avoid­ing a run­off.

The highest-pro­file Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ate is former Geor­gia Sec­ret­ary of State Kar­en Han­del, but a few more hope­fuls also have some no­tori­ety: Bob Gray, run­ning as the Trump-style busi­ness­man, com­ing out of the tech sec­tor; former state Sen. Jud­son Hill, more the es­tab­lish­ment busi­ness can­did­ate; Dav­id Ab­roms, an­oth­er busi­ness­man but from the en­ergy sec­tor; Bruce LeV­ell, a jew­elry busi­ness­man who ran Trump’s Na­tion­al Di­versity Co­ali­tion; and former state Sen. Dan Moody. None have par­tic­u­larly caught on, and the im­me­di­ate chal­lenge for Re­pub­lic­ans is to keep Os­soff un­der 50 per­cent, for­cing a run­off.

Polling shows Os­soff with­in strik­ing dis­tance of 50 per­cent. If he wins on Tues­day, this will be a big deal. Should Re­pub­lic­ans force a run­off and ul­ti­mately win the dis­trict in June, that would be a gi­gant­ic cause for re­lief among Re­pub­lic­ans, while a Demo­crat­ic win in the run­off would be a good sign for Demo­crats but not earth-shat­ter­ing like an April shutout vic­tory would be.

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