Even though I only played a small part in the Georgia CD 6 special election (did two surveys there for a SuperPAC), the win by Karen Handel was supremely satisfying. Competitive special elections receive an inordinate amount of attention because they are the only game in town (yes, South Carolina CD 5 happened the same day, but the attention and money differential was huge, even if the outcome was similar).
If the Democrats had won either race, there would be, in the immortal words of Bill Murray in “Ghostbusters,” “human sacrifice, cats and dogs living together, mass hysteria.” And that was in the age BEFORE Twitter! Instead, the loss by Jon Ossoff led to more liberals crying (never enough of that!), a rant by Nancy Pelosi, and enough finger-pointing to plug a dike in the Netherlands.
Democrats should take cold comfort in the fact that their candidate in the special elections performed better than the Democratic congressional candidates in 2016. Open seats are almost always closer races than incumbent races, so a tighter race in 2017 compared to last November doesn’t mean it is a moral victory. There is no such thing as a moral victory in politics.
However, what the Handel win should not lead to among Republicans is hubris that everything is going to be great in 2018. History argues strongly against that. Now, that does not mean that Republicans will lose the House in 2018; as I like to say about politics, “Trends are trends until they change.” After the 1988 presidential election, the “Republican Electoral Lock” was the hot conventional wisdom. In 2016, it was the supposed impenetrability of “The Big Blue Wall” that led Hillary Clinton to take the campaign for granted.
However, it makes much more political sense to assume that recent political history will continue. Which means Republican incumbents and open seat candidates better run for office as if their political lives are endangered. Those who point to established mid-term trends indicating huge GOP losses may be just as spectacularly wrong. I worked on several campaigns in 2006 where the Republicans were declared dead before bouncing back to eke out a win. Other Republicans worked just as hard but did not get re-elected. The voters are a cruel master (somewhere whilst hiking in the woods, Hillary Clinton is vigorously nodding her head).
The chart below underscores the impact of presidential job approval ratings on mid-term elections. The conclusion should not be shocking, but it certainly is crystal clear. Wave mid-term elections occur against the party in the White House when the incumbent president has an approval below 50%.
While you can argue extenuating circumstances impacted some of those results, it is hard to argue with the outcome. And, with President Trump having a 40% approval rating according to the RCP average, Republicans in potentially vulnerable seats need to fight for their political lives. Those who do not work hard to raise money, engage voters, contrast with their opponent, and energize their base are going to be in grave danger of losing. Take a lesson from the recent special elections, in which the candidates and the party ran extremely strong campaigns, put their opponents on the defensive, and took nothing for granted. GOP incumbents in swing seats should study those races.
Yes, the district lines do help Republicans. Also, the third chart in this post (scroll down) underscores the long road Democrats have to make in-roads in GOP-held seats. While we have that going for us, the above chart underscores that we can take nothing for granted.
The second reminder to Republicans that 2018 is unlikely to be fun and games and Georgia 6-esque is the table below. There is a school of thought that Independents do not matter in off-year elections, but the table below clearly cuts against the conventional wisdom. The 2006, ‘10, and ‘14 data is from the exit polls, and shows Independents voting by double-digits in the direction of the wave.
The 2018 data is the most recent congressional preference question from the NBC/WSJ poll, showing a deficit of double digits. This underscores that Independents need to be a key message and tactical target of GOP campaigns.
It’s not all gloom and doom. The table below shows that, despite the Democratic advantage on the congressional preference question, there has been no erosion in support for a Republican Congress from Republican-held congressional districts.
So far this election cycle, the movement to Democrats on the preference question has all come from Democratic-held districts. At this point in time (things can change!) this means Nancy Pelosi would win her district by an even bigger margin than in previous years (given her last seven years as leader, that’s excellent news!), but that Republicans would turn in results similar to 2012 and 2016.
So, the voters are sending some mixed signals. It serves as a warning to be ready for a potentially difficult mid-term cycle, but also that Pelosi should not be measuring the drapes in the Speaker’s Office yet.
The NBC/WSJ poll is conducted by Bill McInturff from Public Opinion Strategies and Fred Yang from Garin Hart Yang Research. This analysis is my own and does not necessarily reflect the views of NBC/WSJ or Garin Hart Yang Research.