AGAINST THE GRAIN

TrumpCare Gets an Early Test at the Polls

In two special elections, the big surprise is that neither party is talking much about health care, evidence that neither side is sure of its political potency.

In this Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2016 photo, Republican candidate for governor Greg Gianforte poses below animal trophies in his home in Bozeman, Mont. Gianforte is trying to unseat Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock in the Nov. 8 elections.
AP Photo/Matt Volz
May 9, 2017, 8 p.m.

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.

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"Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was spotted entering a congressional office building on Tuesday morning for what a committee aide told The Daily Beast was a meeting with the leaders of the House Foreign Affairs committee and relevant staff about his time working in the Trump administration. ... Tillerson’s arrival at the Capitol was handled with extreme secrecy. No media advisories or press releases were sent out announcing his appearance. And he took a little noticed route into the building in order to avoid being seen by members of the media."

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