There’s a side conversation occurring among Democrats today about whether protests are fueling momentum and organizing for a Democratic electoral comeback or diverting energy from it. For me, it’s all of the above. I do not believe they’re in opposition to each other at all. But for everyone who is worried, determined, angry or anything else to save the country from Trumpism, please focus on this. If all Donald Trump’s nominees are confirmed by the Senate, which is quite likely, we will have in the next few months at least four House special elections for seats now held by Republicans. These contests are each critical for stemming the tide of Trumpism.
There are two elections I want to focus on today.
First is the Montana at-large district currently held Rep. Ryan Zinke, who Trump has nominated to be Secretary of the Interior. Montana is a red state. So winning this seat would be a challenge. But it’s not impossible by any means. We’ll have to wait on Zinke’s confirmation to have a date called for an election.
Second is Georgia’s 6th congressional district, represented until days ago by Rep. Tom Price (R), before he was confirmed as the new Secretary of Health and Human Services. The Governor has called a special election for April 18th. This is the district I really want to talk about.
Georgia’s 6th District is built on a series of affluent and highly educated suburbs of Atlanta. It’s a conservative district. The arch-conservative Price has won it handily in the last three elections. He took 64.5% of the vote in 2012, 66.04% in 2014 and 61.7% just last November. But beneath those numbers there’s a more complicated story.
In 2012, Mitt Romney won this district by 23 points (61-38). In 2016, Donald Trump won it by just 1 point (48-47). That’s a massive drop off, which signals deep opposition to Donald Trump. What’s more, the last three congressional cycles show another dimension of the problem. In 2012, Price spent $1.77m against $44k by his Democratic opponent. 2014 was similar. Price spent $1.724m while his Democratic opponent spent $14k. In 2016, at least according to the latest FEC filings listed on OpenSecrets.org, Price sent $2.462m against literally nothing spent by his opponent, Democrat Rodney Stooksbury. In other words, it seems fair to say that the current version of Georgia 6th has never been seriously contested by the Democrats.
All this being said, let me make it clear that this will be a very hard seat to win. Charlie Cook’s rating puts it at R+14. Habits of voting for one party or another tend to be deep-seated. But Georgia 6th is also one of a substantial number of seats whose partisan complexion changed substantially in 2016. We hear a lot about the white rural or small town districts that moved heavily in favor of Republicans. There was a comparable number of districts that moved heavily in favor of the Democrats. Most were like Georgia 6th: affluent and highly educated suburbs, often with at least a significant level of racial and ethnic diversity. (The Census says whites make up about 70% of the population. The median household income is $83,844 and 59.5% have college degrees.) Another example is Texas 32nd. Mitt Romney won the district by 15 points in 2012. But Hillary Clinton won it by 3 in 2016. Rep. Pete Sessions (R) cruised to reelection in 2016 in large part because Democrats did not even field a candidate. The Greens and Libertarians did. Democrats didn’t.
As I said, winning this race is an uphill battle. But special elections are low turnout affairs which play heavily to organizing and motivation. The district has already given substantial evidence of hostility toward President Trump and he’s only gotten less popular since he was sworn in only three weeks ago.
But here’s the key. You can’t win elections without contesting. On one level, that’s just a truism. But it’s a more complex truth than many people realize. If Democrats were to win the 6th District that would of course put them one seat closer to winning back control of the House in 2018. But even if they don’t, they will win other big advantages.
1: You learn new information. Just like you train to run a race, you often have to lose campaigns before you can win them. Operatives gain experience. Theories and messages are tested and either refined or discarded. You also learn things about particular states and districts. They’re not all the same. Did Democrats know Hillary Clinton would win or come close in Texas 32nd or Georgia 6th? Probably not. They may not have known if they were contesting those seats. But they would have had a much better shot at it. They clearly lacked enough information about the situation in the post-industrial midwest. The same values and politics can’t be expressed the same way in every part of the country. Precisely the same politics can’t win or even be competitive in every part of the country. Whether you call it a “50 state strategy” or something else, this is one reason parties need to contest elections everywhere.
2. It improves recruiting. If a Democrat wins the 6th District in April, I guarantee you Democratic recruiting for 2018 will be transformed overnight. The most qualified candidates and those with the most potential generally don’t want to run if they don’t have a shot of winning. A win is a proof of concept. It shows it’s not just possible but realistic. Even a close loss, though, in a district which is supposed to be solidly Republican would have a comparable if lesser effect. You can’t take advantage of a wave unless you’ve done the recruiting that makes it possible and that has to happen months or a year in advantage.
3. Psychology and Community Shape Outcomes. Whether it’s a state or a jurisdiction, if you live in a place where the party opposite from yours routinely wins by 70%, you’re not likely to parade your politics that loudly. You’re also much less likely to get involved in campaigns, let alone run for office. Are Democrats in Idaho or Pennsylvania more likely to get involved in state or congressional campaigns? The question answers itself. Now, it’s not that Oklahoma is a diehard Republican state because all the liberals are quiet or don’t know each are there. It’s a very conservative state. That is a reality not a skewed perception. But 60-40 districts operate differently than 55-45 districts. Even relatively small differences have big effects. What’s more, jurisdictions with vibrant oppositions have the capacity for persuasion at the local level which is quite different from parachuting in every two or four years. It’s simple psychology or even physiology. You can’t gain strength if you’re already dead. And if you don’t even exist or contest elections in a district or a state or any other electoral jurisdiction you’re dead. Contesting elections means learning things, shaping politics suited to the particulars of a specific jurisdiction. It activates voters who might not otherwise be involved. That matters a lot even if a given race can’t be won.
Donald Trump is extraordinarily unpopular. The latest Gallup approval poll puts him at 40% approval, 55% disapproval. That’s a -15 net approval, down 15 points in the three weeks since Trump was elected. That is an extraordinary level of unpopularity for a President in his first month in office. I suspect Trump is already weaker than people realize in the white, less college educated districts where he drove Republican surges in November. But this kind of district has already shown its aversion to Trump. Bigly. The message of an opposition party in this kind of election is always pretty clear: Do you want to give President Trump a blank check or not? Democrats should put everything they have into this.