The political environment couldn’t be much better for Democrats looking to prove their political momentum. President Trump’s job approval is hovering in dangerously low territory, and the Democratic base is fired up and shows no signs of cooling. Republicans just passed legislation rolling back Obamacare on a party-line vote, even though polls show that the bill is deeply unpopular. Republican members of Congress are getting an earful from their constituents at town halls, from Idaho to Iowa.
Democratic strategists are wishing the midterm elections were today so they could capitalize on this perfect storm.
As it turns out, there are two competitive congressional elections taking place over the next six weeks that should offer a good sense of just how promising the political environment is for Democrats heading into 2018. Both parties are all-in for these contests, deploying staff and spending liberally on television ads. A Democratic upset in one of these off-year elections would be a powerful signal that the GOP’s House majority is in jeopardy; two Republican wins would suggest sky-high expectations for a Democratic takeover should be recalibrated.
In Georgia, Democratic nominee Jon Ossoff tallied an impressive 48 percent of the vote in last month’s all-party primary—before Republicans revived their dormant health care legislation. In Montana, Rob Quist is running an unexpectedly strong race against GOP businessman Greg Gianforte, whose wealth, corporate background, and out-of-state history are thorns in this proud, populist-minded state.
The health care legislation is more of a shadow than a wedge in both of these races. Gianforte declined to take a public position on the House bill, but then faced an embarrassing revelation—reported in The New York Times—that he privately told Republican lobbyists that he supported it. Holding different positions for donors and the public is juicy fodder for Democrats. Meanwhile, in Georgia, health care is a key dividing line between the two candidates. Republican Karen Handel came out for the House bill, while Ossoff argued that the law puts “Georgians’ lives at risk.”
The Georgia and Montana seats are representative of the two different types of Republican-friendly areas that Democrats are targeting in their bid to take back the House: the affluent suburbs that were once reliably Republican and working-class confines that have voted Democratic in the past. After the health care vote, The Cook Political Report downgraded the GOP odds in 20 Republican-held districts—most of them fitting in the former category. The Cook Report now rates 25 Republican seats as toss-ups or leaning Republican, one more than the number of seats that Democrats would need to regain a majority.
The race for Tom Price’s vacated suburban Atlanta district is as close to a bellwether as it gets. The Georgia district was the 27th-best Clinton district that Republicans represent. Both Ossoff’s campaign and an outside Democratic group released internal polling (conducted before the health care vote) showing Ossoff narrowly ahead; a public poll conducted by Landmark Communications showed Handel up by 2 points.
If the health care vote is as toxic as Democrats suggest, Handel’s backing of the bill should markedly improve Ossoff’s chances. But if the vote doesn’t move numbers in this district, it would suggest that partisanship is a more important political driver than the details of policy. Interestingly, neither campaign is airing ads on health care, suggesting it’s not the unalloyed negative that national Democrats claim. Cook Political Report House analyst David Wasserman wrote: “The irony is that Democrats’ temptation to refer to the GOP’s bill as ‘TrumpCare’ may actually raise the popularity of the legislation.”
Montana’s race is a tougher slog for Democrats—the state gave Trump 56 percent of the vote in the presidential election—but its populist nature makes it a valuable proxy in health care politics. Gianforte’s decision not to publicly support the legislation is a sign that it’s not polling well, even in one of the president’s strongest states. In Quist, Democrats are running a folksy musician, drawing a sharp contrast to Gianforte’s wealth and the fact that he lived in New Jersey until 1994. Democrats released a poll showing Quist within 6 points, conducted before the revival of the House health care bill.
The good news for Democrats is that anti-Trump sentiment is broad and deep, and that alone should put the House in play for 2018. The bad news is most of that opposition was already locked in before the GOP health care vote, limiting additional gains as a result from the vote itself. If anything, the bill’s passage means Republicans are more energized to turn out during a non-presidential election year. Indeed, a new YouGov/Huffington Post survey showed that while the legislation is still very unpopular (31/44 approval), its favorability increased because Republicans rallied behind it after its passage.
The Democratic math to take back the House has always been straightforward: win over enough typical Republican voters to tip districts that rarely vote for Democrats. The type of seats that they need to pick off are awfully similar to Georgia-06, both politically and demographically. And Montana has a long history of supporting populist Democrats, especially in this type of political environment.
Special elections aren’t always predictive of what will happen in the midterm election, but they offer a valuable snapshot of the public mood. If Democrats can’t capitalize on this stew of Republican dysfunction in the next month, it’s fair to wonder if their fortunes will be that much improved by next November.