Horseshoes, hand grenades and special electionsBottom Highlights, Latest Issue, Politically Aware Thursday, April 27th, 2017
Commentary: Politically Aware
Congressional candidates in recent special elections have outpaced the Democratic Party’s recent electoral history and still lost. In the Kansas 4th District (KS-4), James Thompson took nearly 46 percent in a place where Democrats hadn’t cracked 40 percent in over 15 years. In Georgia’s 6th District (GA-6), not won by a Democrat since 1976, Jon Ossoff got 48 percent, almost avoiding a June run-off.
Democrats are celebrating an energy they believe could give them control of the House of Representatives in 2018. Republicans say close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. A deeper look at the numbers suggests Democrats have more of the truth, but haven’t closed the deal.
Instead of their current 0-2 record, look at the gap Democrats have closed since 2016. In KS-4, President Trump beat Sec. Hillary Clinton by 27 points, and former Republican Congressman Mike Pompeo won by 31 points. Using those numbers as a baseline, Thompson’s seven point loss is an improvement of at least 20 percent. GA-6 is a more mixed message, with Ossoff performing 10 points better than the 2016 congressional candidate, but barely exceeding Clinton’s 47 percent.
One way to project special election results into the midterms is the Partisan Voter Index (PVI). The Cook Political Report’s PVI ranks K-4 as an “R+15”, meaning it leans 15 points more Republican than the nation as a whole, while G-6 is an R+8. That suggests Democrats beat historical expectations by about eight points, depending on exactly how you crunch the numbers.
What do eight points mean in 2018? In the 2006 midterm elections, when President George W. Bush had an approval rating slightly lower than President Trump’s current 42 percent, Democrats won the national congressional vote by eight percent. They regained control of the House by winning a net 31 seats, more than the 24 they would need this year. Redistricting has probably made it harder for Democrats, but the PVI gives hope in another way: G-6 is the 165th most Republican leaning congressional district. If Democrats win there and everywhere less Republican, they would take the House with about 50 seats to spare.
Still, there are warning signs for Democrats. When voters are asked which party they favor in 2018, Democrats are ahead by less than one point (RealClearPolitics.com), not eight, and in an ABC News/Washington Post poll, only 28 percent felt the Democratic Party was “in touch with people’s concerns.”
Clearly President Trump’s low approval has given Democrats an opening, but frankly so did his candidacy. Trump won largely because he did better among voters who disliked him and Clinton, even if they thought he was unfit for office. To take the House in 2018, Democrats need a message that brings those voters back to their party.
Their next chance to try is the Montana (R+11) special election May 25. Will Democratic candidate Rob Quist just come close, or finally close the deal? Stay tuned.
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