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Special Elections, 2017

March 28, 2017

A few weeks ago, I told you about the upcoming special elections to fill vacant House seats. This is my first update.

There will be five of these special elections, the first being next Tuesday and the last being on June 20. One of the five vacant seats is traditionally Democratic, having been vacated by Xavier Becerra, who was appointed to be California’s attorney general. The other four seats are traditionally Republican, having been vacated by various appointees to Donald Trump’s cabinet.

A month ago, I said that the importance of these races is unlikely to be their outcome, because, I said, “barring something extraordinary, the incumbent party is likely to hold each of those seats.” Instead, I said, the importance of these races is likely to be what they reveal about popular reaction to the Republican Party now headed by President Trump. That is still true, although the chances of a Democratic pick-up, or even two, are greater than I thought last month.

In general elections, publicly available polling data in House races is pretty sparse, so seat-by-seat projections are essentially impossible. But special elections are, well, special – and enough polling data is publicly available to be meaningful.

The first seat up, California’s 34th District, will stay Democratic. The only question is whether any of the Democratic candidates can get to the 50 percent vote needed to avoid a runoff on June 6. The only published poll for the race, taken in mid-February, shows Democratic state Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez leading a large pack with 20 percent of the vote.

The second special election is in Kansas’s 4th District, on April 11. This was Mike Pompeo’s seat before he became the CIA director, and it has been Republican since 1995. The last time the seat was open, in 2010, Pompeo beat the Democrat by 22 percent of the vote. There’s no publicly available polling yet, but the thing to watch is whether the Republican nominee, state Treasurer Ron Estes beats civil rights attorney John Thompson by a Pompeo-like margin.

The third special election is for Georgia’s 6th District seat, on April 18, with a runoff on June 20 if no candidate takes a majority of the vote. (Early voting began yesterday.) This seat has been Republican since Newt Gingrich ended a century-and-a-half of Democratic control in 1979. It was most recently held by Tom Price, who is now Trump’s secretary of health and human services.

The leading candidates are Democrat Jon Ossoff, a documentary filmmaker and former Congressional aide, and Republican Karen Handel, former secretary of state and unsuccessful candidate for governor and senate. The two most recent polls have Ossoff way ahead of Handel – 40 percent to 20 percent in one, and 41 to 16 in the other. In an 18-way race, Ossoff probably won’t get to 50 percent on April 18. The Republicans who are trailing Handel are carrying a lot more votes in the polling than the Democrats who are trailing Ossoff. At best, the run-off will be close – the only run-off poll so far shows Ossoff leading Handel, 42 to 41, with 17 percent undecided.

Still, the last time the seat was open, Price ran unopposed and took 100 percent of the vote; his closest re-election win was his last one, in 2016, when he won by 23 percent. There is a very good chance that this one will be much closer. Democrats have poured money into this race; if Ossoff goes into a run-off, this race will become a national cause.

The fourth special election is in Montana’s state-wide House district, on May 15. The seat has been Republican since 1997, and was vacated by Ryan Zinke when he became secretary of the interior. The Republican nominee is Greg Gianforte, who ran a close race for governor in 2016, losing to the incumbent Democrat by less than 4 percent of the vote. The Democratic nominee is a political newcomer, country music star Rob Quist.

Quist was a Bernie Sanders supporter who favors a single-payer health care system, opposes privatization of federal land, opposes Trump’s Muslim ban, and is pro-choice. Trump carried Montana by more than 20 percent. But guess what? Quist is leading Gianforte in the only published poll, 48 percent to 41, with a Libertarian Party candidate taking 11 percent. The poll was taken almost two months before the actual voting, which means there is plenty of time for voter sentiment to change.

The last of the special elections is on June 20, in South Carolina’s 5th District, following party primaries on May 2, with run-offs on May 16 if needed. This is the seat vacated by OMB Director Mick Mulvaney, and it has been Republican since 2011, when Mulvaney ended a string of Democrats going back to Reconstruction. Mulvaney won election by 10 percent, and won re-election three times, each time by a larger margin: 12 percent, 18 percent, and 20 percent.

Party nominees have yet to be determined. The leading Republican candidates are two members of the state House of Representatives. On the Democratic side, no established politician had an appetite for the race; the three candidates are political neophytes. No doubt Republicans will hold the seat. The issue will be how well a Democratic newcomer does against an established Republican.

President Trump continues to run approval ratings at historic lows – 36 percent as of Sunday, according to Gallup. His health care bill died an ignominious death, and his Muslim bans are on indefinite judicial hold. Trump continues to pick undignified and irrelevant Twitter fights. Trump treats our allies with indifference, even hostility, but Vladimir Putin with admiration. His administration is under a counter-intelligence investigation by his own FBI – and by the intelligence committees in both houses of Congress. The Russia scandal clearly has legs, as reporters keep discovering previously undisclosed Russian interests of Trump associates. The Trump family’s conflicts of interests are unprecedented. Trump appointees shamelessly pursue regulatory initiatives that will directly benefit their personal finances.

Unless circumstances change quickly and decisively, this Spring’s special Congressional elections will constitute the first electoral backlash against Trump and his Republicans.


  1. Jason Werbics permalink

    The first test has come and gone (the Kansas special election) and the Democrats couldn’t take the seat.

    Given all the marching and protesting that has taken place since Trump’s inauguration, you would think that progressives had built enough momentum and raised enough cash to take that seat. But it was not to be. I think this electoral failure is very telling.

    Those who want to remove Trump or the Republicans must ask themselves this question: what is the impediment to achieving electoral success? Is it progressivism (socialism lite) that is turning the electorate off? Or is it a resurgent conservativism (propelled by a growing populist wave) that somehow is making inroads into mainstream American society?

    I believe the answer resides more in the former than the latter.

    The liberal would be best served to sever ties with the progressive and return intellectually and politically to their roots. The liberal in America needs to make a clean break with the diminished forces of progressivism in America, and it can do this by kicking them out of the Democratic Party. And in doing so, the liberal can also purge themselves of that ideology that continues to clash with an American liberalism so eloquently expressed by Louis Hartz in his work, The American Liberal Tradition.

    Once this is achieved, the liberal in America can begin to politically and intellectually explore and utilize the new postmodern path that Brexit has opened for all of us in the Western world.

    Keep up the very interesting writing. Looking forward to your next essay.

    J.R. Werbics is a Canadian filmmaker, writer and philosopher


    • Thanks for reading, Jason, and thanks for taking the time to comment.

      You raise two issues that I want to respond to – the meaning of the special election in the 4th Congressional District of Kansas, and the direction and philosophy of the Democratic Party. As it happens, I disagree with you on both points.

      The special election wasn’t a “telling electoral failure,” but a remarkable success. Democrats’ goal isn’t to win every election, it’s to win back the House in 2018. The Kansas outcome shows that the 2018 goal is well within reach. A seat long regarded as “safe” for Republicans turned out to be not so safe. This will cause some Republicans re-consider the price of their loyalty to Trump; it will encourage viable Democrats to run for Congress in 2018; and it will empower voters to recognize that voting for the Democrat, even in a “safe” Republican district, may not be a mere gesture.

      Regarding the Democratic Party, I don’t agree that liberals should be pushing progressives out of the Democratic Party. But first I have to challenge your concept of liberals versus progressives.

      You maintain that progressives are “socialist lite.” Socialism is the belief in collective rather than private ownership of property and the means of production. I’m not aware of any elected Democrat who advocates socialism – not even Bernie Sanders, who calls himself a socialist. I don’t really understand what a “lite” socialist would be. Some conservatives like to characterize as “socialist” a person who advocates state regulation of the private economy, but that’s because those conservatives don’t actually know what they’re talking about.

      You invoke Louis Hartz’s 1955 work to support your distinction between liberals and progressives a.k.a. socialist lite. But Hartz was critical of Americans for an “unthinking liberal consensus” that excluded the socialist ideas that briefly flourished in Europe. Hartz used “liberal” in the classical sense, referring to a polity in which religious and governmental institutions are separate, and rights are vested in individuals and enforceable against the state. When Hartz referred to the American liberal consensus, he was not talking about political liberalism as espoused by the modern Democratic Party.

      The American liberal consensus prevailed until quite recently – it is Donald Trump’s rise, not Democratic progressivism, that constitutes the clear and present threat to liberalism, as Hartz used that word. Trump hands social policy over to religious interests. He tramples press freedom. He diminishes dissent and the exercise of other individual rights not found in the Second Amendment. He corrupts even the concept of truth.

      Survival of the American liberal consensus demands that Trump be contained in 2018 and defeated in 2020. Democrats are energized and ready. The Kansas outcome showed that many who previously voted Republican are eager to join the cause – also yesterday’s result in Georgia. Next up is Montana, where another Democratic newcomer is leading in the polls for a seat held by Republicans for the last 20 years.


  2. Jason Werbics permalink

    It is April 19, and the Democrats are 0 and 2 when it comes to the special Congressional elections you speak about.

    J.R. Werbics is a Canadian filmmaker, writer and philosopher


    • Actually, the Democrat in Georgia’s 6th District, Jon Ossoff, won the preliminary vote by a whopping 28 percent of the vote. It is true that Ossoff didn’t get to 50 percent of the vote, so has to go to a run-off. And it’s true that Ossoff is a newcomer while his opponent is a well known, well funded establishment Republican with three state-wide races under her belt. Still, I think Ossoff’s chances in the run-off are about 50-50 at this point.

      But even if he loses, Ossoff did better than any Democratic House candidate in that district since 1978, when a Georgian Democrat sat in the White House. As in Kansas, the voting results in Georgia show that large numbers of voters who previously went Republican are now willing to vote Democratic. If that remains the case in the 2018 mid-terms, Paul Ryan will be handing the Speaker’s gavel back to Nancy Pelosi, the Trump agenda will be over, and the Republic will have been saved.


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