OFF TO THE RACES

Two Special Elections Add Suspense to Midterms

Republicans survive House races, but their margins fall well below past results.

Democratic House candidate Jon Ossoff speaks to supporters during an election-night watch party on Tuesday in Dunwoody, Ga.
AP Photo/John Bazemore
Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
April 20, 2017, 8 p.m.

Two con­gres­sion­al spe­cial elec­tions in as many weeks make clear that while the Re­pub­lic­an Party is not in a free fall, things are not co­pacet­ic, either. Re­pub­lic­an state Treas­urer Ron Estes won last week’s spe­cial elec­tion in Kan­sas’s 4th Dis­trict to fill the va­cancy cre­ated by Mike Pom­peo’s nom­in­a­tion to head the CIA, but his 5-point vic­tory was far short of the mar­gins pos­ted by Pom­peo (31 points) and Don­ald Trump (27) last year, and Mitt Rom­ney (26) in 2012.

Earli­er this week, Re­pub­lic­ans man­aged to pre­vent 30-year-old Demo­crat Jon Os­soff from win­ning Geor­gia’s 6th Dis­trict spe­cial elec­tion for the seat left open when Tom Price be­came sec­ret­ary of Health and Hu­man Ser­vices. In what should have been a cake­walk for the GOP, Os­soff fell less than 2 points short of the 50 per­cent tally that would have sent him to Wash­ing­ton. Re­pub­lic­an con­gres­sion­al, gubernat­ori­al, and sen­at­ori­al can­did­ates have in re­cent years won the dis­trict by large double-di­git mar­gins. The out­come of the June 20 run­off now be­comes im­port­ant.

These res­ults are frus­trat­ing to people who like their polit­ics simple, as many ideo­logues and par­tis­ans tend to. The elec­tions can be in­ter­preted in either of two ways, de­pend­ing on your dis­pos­i­tion: Per­haps the Re­pub­lic­an train is go­ing hor­ribly off the tracks, or it’s chug­ging along just fine. The an­swer de­pends on fu­ture events.

Will Trump and the con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans con­tin­ue to act in a way that in­furi­ates the Demo­crat­ic base, and keeps it highly mo­tiv­ated and chomp­ing to get to the polls in spe­cial elec­tions and in next year’s midterms?

An­oth­er factor is a per­cep­tion of com­pet­ence. Wheth­er one agrees or dis­agrees with the policies of Trump and con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans, it may mat­ter more wheth­er they seem to know what they’re do­ing and go­ing about it in a pro­fes­sion­al way. A gov­ern­ment shut­down would likely not en­hance the pub­lic’s per­cep­tion of Re­pub­lic­an com­pet­ence in Wash­ing­ton.

Pres­id­en­tial trans­itions are in­her­ently bumpy, some more than oth­ers. Ob­vi­ously the easi­est trans­ition is when an in­cum­bent pres­id­ent is reelec­ted—some aides from the ori­gin­al team leave, oth­ers are moved around, and some new people are ad­ded. Next easi­est is when a sit­ting vice pres­id­ent or someone else in the pre­vi­ous ad­min­is­tra­tion takes over. A little bumpi­er is when the new pres­id­ent is from the same party but hasn’t been a part of the pre­vi­ous ad­min­is­tra­tion.

A trans­ition is far more dif­fi­cult when an in­sider from the op­pos­ite party be­comes pres­id­ent and trig­gers a whole­sale change in dir­ec­tion and per­son­nel. But the greatest tur­bu­lence oc­curs when an out­sider from the op­pos­i­tion party takes over, caus­ing dra­mat­ic changes in dir­ec­tion, agenda, per­son­nel, and style. The changeover from Demo­crat­ic Pres­id­ent Obama to Re­pub­lic­an Trump, who had nev­er worked in gov­ern­ment—elec­ted or ap­poin­ted, ci­vil­ian or mil­it­ary—is the most far-reach­ing change ima­gin­able. This should not come as a shock. Voters know­ingly chose jolt­ing change.

As this column ar­gued earli­er this week, Trump’s know­ledge and un­der­stand­ing of policy and pro­cess has doubled or tripled every 30 days since he took of­fice, from a stand­ing start. As he has be­gun to mas­ter his brief, White House policies have be­gun to re­vert to the mean, be­com­ing more or less what an­oth­er Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­ent might have done and, in some cases, not too dif­fer­ent from what Obama might have done. Trump has found that this gov­ern­ing stuff is a lot more com­plic­ated than it looked when he watched cable news every night.

Hav­ing a new team with a lot of people who have nev­er served in gov­ern­ment in­ev­it­ably makes the ini­tial ride more bumpy, and that is cer­tainly the case here. A base­ball team early in spring train­ing looks far less pro­fi­cient than it will look in the second half of the sea­son or in the play­offs. The fact that a lot of po­s­i­tions in this ad­min­is­tra­tion have not yet been filled fur­ther erodes its abil­ity to gov­ern in a com­pet­ent way.

As we get deep­er in­to the year, it mat­ters a great deal wheth­er a new pres­id­ent gets things done smoothly or still op­er­ates in a Key­stone Kops sort of way.

Fi­nally, does the Re­pub­lic­an base see Trump and con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans try­ing to do what they were elec­ted to do, even if they go about things in a clumsy man­ner? Most people un­der­stand that cir­cum­stances change, but the base needs to be­lieve that its party’s val­ues have re­mained the same even if cir­cum­stances force dif­fer­ent out­comes.

The midterms are shap­ing up as a bi­furc­ated elec­tion. Re­pub­lic­ans are play­ing de­fense in the House, try­ing to hold on to a ma­jor­ity that now seems more pre­cari­ous than ori­gin­ally thought. But in the Sen­ate, where Re­pub­lic­ans have a 52-48 ma­jor­ity, it is Demo­crats who are play­ing de­fense. Demo­crats are pay­ing the price for hav­ing fant­ast­ic elec­tions in 2006, dur­ing Pres­id­ent George W. Bush’s second term, when the midterm elec­tions were heav­ily af­fected by the in­creas­ingly un­pop­u­lar Ir­aq War, and in 2012, when Obama was reelec­ted. Demo­crats are de­fend­ing 25 seats, in­clud­ing 10 in states Trump car­ried, five by 19 points or more, while Re­pub­lic­ans are de­fend­ing nine seats, only one of which went for Hil­lary Clin­ton last year.

The course for the midterms is still to be de­term­ined. How things go over the next six months will de­term­ine how many law­makers re­tire, who steps up to run for open seats, and the qual­ity of the can­did­ates who chal­lenge in­cum­bents. A party that is per­ceived as hav­ing the wind at its back tends to have few­er re­tire­ments and bet­ter re­cruit­ing than one fa­cing head­winds. In short, the 2018 midterm-elec­tion book is still in its early chapters.

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