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Democrats hope their narrower-than-expected loss in Kansas this week suggests they have a fighting chance in upcoming special elections across the country, but the cards are stacked against them.
That the Democrats are crowing about a defeat is a reminder that they are trying to beat President Donald Trump with a weak hand that the president himself dealt them when he chose where these races would play out.
The special elections are being held to replace former lawmakers recently appointed to Trump’s administration. And in each case, Trump tapped members of Congress from safely Republican areas, making it difficult for Democrats to prevail in the contests.
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“All of the Republican vacancies so far have happened in districts that are more Republican than the nation,” said Kyle Kondik, an analyst with the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “When Democrats have their pick of all the House districts to run in next year, almost none of these districts (where special elections are being held) are the ones they’ll chose to play in.”
It speaks to how poor Democrats’ options are that they’ve chosen to stake their prospects in Georgia’s 6th congressional district, where former Rep. Tom Price stepped down to become the Secretary of Health and Human Services.
While Trump barely won that district in 2016, Price carried it by 24 percentage points, continuing an unbroken chain of GOP control stretching back to Jimmy Carter's administration.
Next month, there’s also a race in Montana, which Trump won by 20 percentage points and Rep. Ryan Zinke, who stepped down to become Interior Secretary, carried by 15 points.
And a potential battle to replace Pennsylvania Rep. Tom Marino, who is reported to be Trump’s pick for “Drug Czar,” will take place in a district Trump won by 36 percentage points.
Democrats won’t even bother contesting a Senate race in Alabama to replace Jeff Sessions, Trump’s Attorney General. And they’ve so far shown little interest in a South Carolina race to replace former Rep. Mick Mulvaney, now Trump’s Director of Office of Management and Budget.
The Kansas race this week was an impressive showing for Democrat James Thompson, who surpassed Hillary Clinton’s performance by 20 percentage points. But victory still eluded him thanks to the district’s overwhelmingly conservative bent.
That’s left Democrats viewing Georgia as their best — and perhaps only — hope for a win in any these early Trump era races.
The special elections are seen as early indicators of what might happen in the 2018 midterms, with potentially major implications for fundraising, grassroots activism, and candidate recruitment.
Every new administrations triggers special elections when they select elected officials for administration posts. And every new administration weighs the political implication of those picks.
Former President Obama, for instance, earned criticism for jeopardizing his party’s control of hard-won seats when he elevated to his Cabinet officials like then-Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar, then-Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, and then-Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano.
Trump’s picks have caused little political wake so far, though the appointment of Zinke deprived Republicans of a strong challenger to Democratic Sen. Jon Tester.
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Democrats are trying to use the uphill nature of these battles to their advantage, highlighting how much they’ve exceeded expectations by putting up a fight in these districts.
“The White House did what any party in power would do by only appointing members of Congress from safe seats to avoid losing seats early in the cycle,” said Dave Hamrick, a former political director for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “But they may not even achieve that goal as they narrowly won in Kansas 4 and face a serious threat in Georgia 6 — both districts that should not be remotely competitive.”
Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist who has worked on House races, said forcing Republicans to spend resources on what should be safe seats is a win in itself.
“Given how quickly suburban Trump voters are fleeing Trump's Republican Party, his appointments are backfiring and the GOP now has to spend time and money defending seats that they should never have had to worry about,” he said.