Democrats energised in US special elections

By Giulia Marchiori Ceresa
5 June 2017
Republicans are losing ground in the US, but the Democratic party must be more than an anti-Trump force to carry this momentum through to 2018
Created with Sketch.

We can’t help but notice a change in the air since Donald Trump took office. And liberals – in the United States and around the world – are fired up. They won’t allow this president to threaten their basic freedoms, the fundamentals of democracy, their planet. The energy is palpable and Democrats are relishing one thing and one thing only: Trump’s base is shrinking. With an approval rate of just 39% after his disastrous announcement to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, Democrats smell blood in the water. And recent special elections are no exception.

Political analysts are watching closely and beginning to make predictions for the 2018 midterms when Democrats hope to translate the ‘resistance’ into votes and send a strong message to the White House. Of course there is a reason special elections are, well, special. First, they are by definition open elections, with no incumbent who would have a likely natural advantage over her/his opponent. Second, each race can present unique variables and drama, from tight timelines and runoff elections, to unlikely candidates, to full-on physical violence. In April, Republican Ron Estes in Kansas won by only a seven percent margin in a district Trump carried by 27. In May, Rob Quist came within just six points of winning a congressional seat in Montana that has been red for over 20 years, in a state that Trump won by 20 points. According to Kyle Kondik of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, since November of last year, Democrats have collectively outperformed Hillary Clinton’s margin by 11 points in special elections, marking a clear shift.

In the House, four special elections are in the books for the rest of the year: California’s 34th District on 6 June, followed by both Georgia’s sixth district and South Carolina’s fifth district on 20 June, and the newly announced race in Utah’s third congressional district, being vacated by five-term Republican Congressman Jason Chaffetz. So far, it is 30-year old Jon Ossoff in Georgia who has become a symbol of the resistance; competing for a deep red seat occupied for 20 years by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich but a district Clinton lost by only one point. Special elections are unpredictable, yet strategists continue to favor Ossoff for a win, which could prove the Republicans’ majority is truly at risk.

Here are a few key things that special elections have proven so far:

  • Focus on the Issues: Relying on a visceral disdain for Trump and his erratic tweets is spiteful and overall ineffective. Instead, Democrats are making a conscious decision to focus on real issues — from jobs and the economy, to healthcare, to immigration. According to a Washington Post article, House Majority PAC invested $750,000 into ads in Georgia that never mention Trump. This way, Democrats are being careful not to alienate potential swing voters or even some Republicans who, according to a recent Pew Research study, may be reconsidering their party affiliation since Trump took office.
  • Money Matters: With campaign finance reform long overdue but unlikely under the current Administration, Democrats are being smarter with their resources while Republicans are overspending at a pace that will quickly become unsustainable as 2018 races near. FEC data in a recent NBC report shows spending of an estimated combined $15.5 million on Kansas, Montana and Georgia by the National Republican Congressional Committee, the Republican National Committee and Paul Ryan’s SuperPAC. This compares to $4.2 million by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the Democratic National Committees and the House Majority PAC, according to the same report.
  • Activating Young People: Young volunteers — many new to political activism and outraged by the outcome of 2016 — are flocking to grassroots campaigns. At the same time, hundreds of start-up organizations have formed, largely run and supported by millennials armed with laptops, twitter handles and demands for change. From the Women’s March to Swing LeftRun for SomethingIndivisibleTech for Campaigns, and many more, the wave of the resistance is being carried by the voices of a generation that stands for progress. In fact, they might prove to be the most unstoppable force yet.

So what will it take to overcome the Republicans’ 44-seat majority in the House? Will Democrats be able to stay laser focused on the issues that matter to the American people, strategically channel resources with a big picture view towards 2018, and continue to ride the resistance wave to keep millennials engaged in rebuilding the party? For now, all eyes are on Georgia. Stay tuned.

Image credit: Thomas Cizauskas