Special congressional elections are notoriously quirky and often hazardous to ruling parties. So with Donald Trump struggling in Washington, it’s hardly surprising that Republicans are nervous about four contests this spring, especially one this month in Atlanta’s suburbs.
The poster child for what could happen occurred in Mississippi in 1981, six months after Ronald Reagan became president, when the GOP sought to capitalize on his popularity to hold a vacated Republican seat.
Television ads posed the choice as between Reagan and Democratic House Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill, an outspoken liberal hardly popular in conservative Mississippi. But the district elected a Democrat, foretelling the party’s successes in the 1982 mid-terms.
Such intimations of broader trends sometimes prove misleading – eight months after a closely watched 2010 Democratic victory in Pennsylvania, Republicans regained the House. But with Trump far less popular than Reagan, Democrats are looking hopefully at Tuesday’s election to succeed Tom Price in Georgia’s 6th District, the first of the four seats vacated by Trump choices for top administration positions.
On the surface, the GOP should have little reason for concern, but changing demographics and Trump’s unpopularity give Democrats a chance in Atlanta’s northern suburbs.
The Georgia district is similar to others with educated, upscale populations where 2016 Democrat Hillary Clinton either won or narrowly lost while voters re-elected GOP House members. Trump’s 2016 plurality was far less than Mitt Romney’s 23-point margin four years earlier.
So Democrats are pouring in funds, more than $3 million so far, while the GOP belatedly mounts a counterattack. Early voting has been more Democratic than the district as a whole, suggesting the kind of enthusiasm gap that often determines such low turnout contests.
And though special election polling is notoriously unreliable, a recent Opinion Savvy poll for Fox News also buoyed Democrats. It showed Jon Ossoff, a filmmaker and former congressional aide around whom Democrats have united, leading the 18-candidate field at 40 percent, within reach of the 50 percent that would avoid a June 20 runoff.
Avoiding a runoff is almost certainly Ossoff’s best chance. Three Republicans had at least 10 percent, and the 11 Republicans totaled more than 50 percent. Ossoff led narrowly in a projected runoff with Republican Karen Handel, but one in six voters were undecided, most presumably backers of other GOP hopefuls.
An Ossoff victory would send shock waves through the GOP, but a Republican victory would merely confirm the GOP leanings of the district once represented by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
The Democrats’ second best chance is in Montana. Their candidate in the May 25 election, country musician and Bernie Sanders supporter Rob Quist, is running a populist campaign against Republican Greg Gianforte, a software entrepreneur who lost the 2016 governor’s race. Though generally Republican presidentially, Montana is a politically independent state that currently has a Democratic governor and one Democratic senator.
The other two districts look safely Republican.
One is Kansas’ 4th District, centered in Wichita. The Republican candidate, state Treasurer Ron Estes, is favored over Democrat James Thompson and Libertarian Chris Rockhold, in Tuesday’s race to succeed Mike Pompeo, now director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Both Pompeo and Trump won the district with slightly more than 60 percent.
The other is South Carolina’s 5th District, north of Columbia, where party primaries are May 2 and a general election June 20. Mick Mulvaney, now the director of the Office of Management and Budget, and Trump won last November with 59 and 57 percent respectively.
There is a fifth special election to fill the solidly Democratic Los Angeles-area seat vacated when Xavier Becerra became state attorney general. The Democratic nominee selected Tuesday will be heavily favored in the May 23 general election. Becerra carried the district with 77 percent, and Clinton with 83 percent.
Lately, Republicans have cast the Atlanta race as a choice between the agendas of conservative GOP House Speaker Paul Ryan and liberal House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi.
But that might be a dubious strategy, considering a far more popular Ronald Reagan couldn’t carry a Mississippi district for the GOP.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is a columnist for The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.