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National Politics|By Charlie Cook, April 18, 2017
This story was originally published on nationaljournal.com on April 14, 2017

The bot­tom didn’t fall out for Re­pub­lic­ans in this week’s House spe­cial elec­tion to re­place newly-min­ted CIA Dir­ect­or Mike Pom­peo, but a yel­low cau­tion light is def­in­itely flash­ing for the GOP.

State Treas­urer Ron Estes, the Re­pub­lic­an nom­in­ee in Kan­sas’s 4th Dis­trict, beat civil rights at­tor­ney James Thompson, the Demo­crat­ic stand­ard-bear­er, by 7 points, 53 to 46 per­cent. This wouldn’t be a bad mar­gin if Pom­peo had not won the dis­trict by 31 points last Novem­ber, Pres­id­ent Trump had not car­ried it by 27 points (60 to 33 per­cent), and Mitt Rom­ney not pre­vailed by 26 points (62 to 36 per­cent) in 2012. The 4th Dis­trict has a Cook Polit­ic­al Re­port Par­tis­an Vot­ing In­dex (PVI) of R+15, mean­ing that it tends to vote about 15 points more Re­pub­lic­an than the coun­try as a whole, mak­ing it the 74th-most-Re­pub­lic­an dis­trict in the coun­try. In oth­er words, a Re­pub­lic­an should have won eas­ily there. With an­oth­er spe­cial elec­tion com­ing up Tues­day in Geor­gia’s 6th Dis­trict to re­place new Health and Hu­man Ser­vices Sec­ret­ary Tom Price, the GOP needs to be very nervous—this dis­trict is not nearly as ruby-red Re­pub­lic­an as the one in Kan­sas is.

Every con­gres­sion­al elec­tion has unique cir­cum­stances, mak­ing un­in­formed gen­er­al­iz­a­tions dan­ger­ous. In the Kan­sas race, Estes had a bur­den to carry on sev­er­al levels. The biggest was that Kan­sas’s fin­ances are a dis­aster, the res­ult—at least in my mind—of overly ag­gress­ive tax cuts pro­moted by Gov. Sam Brown­back, Estes, and many oth­ers in the more con­ser­vat­ive wing of the Kan­sas GOP (the state GOP has two very dis­cern­ible and com­bat­ive wings). But that split in the party does not be­gin to ex­plain this dra­mat­ic un­der­per­form­ance. Pre-spe­cial-elec­tion GOP polling showed that in­tens­ity among Demo­crats in the dis­trict was sig­ni­fic­antly high­er than among Re­pub­lic­ans, a prob­lem which a con­gres­sion­al ma­jor­ity party that is also hold­ing the White House has to worry about in midterm elec­tions.

Both party cam­paign com­mit­tees played the Kan­sas spe­cial elec­tion smartly. The Demo­crat­ic Con­gres­sion­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee and the Kan­sas Demo­crat­ic Party did not spend any­thing un­til the last couple of days be­fore the elec­tion; to do so would have been the kiss of death in such a rock-ribbed Re­pub­lic­an dis­trict. They wanted this cam­paign to fly un­der the radar and not be­come a red-Re­pub­lic­an-versus-blue-Demo­crat­ic race in the minds of re­li­ably con­ser­vat­ive GOP voters. The the­ory was to let GOP voters stay leth­ar­gic, some dis­il­lu­sioned with what is go­ing on with their party in Wash­ing­ton, while the Demo­crat­ic voters in the dis­trict would vent their an­ger at Pres­id­ent Trump and the GOP. This reas­on­ing may not im­press lib­er­al act­iv­ists, arm­chair ana­lysts on the Left, and the net­roots, but any­one ar­tic­u­lat­ing the op­pos­ite line pat­ently doesn’t un­der­stand con­gres­sion­al elec­tions in gen­er­al or spe­cial elec­tions in par­tic­u­lar.

The Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Con­gres­sion­al Com­mit­tee and GOP con­sult­ants saw they had a prob­lem in an un­ex­pec­ted place in the last week and went to DE­F­CON 1. On short no­tice and with a ton of rob­ocalls—from Trump, Vice Pres­id­ent Mike Pence, House Speak­er Paul Ry­an, and oth­ers—along with an elec­tion-eve vis­it from Sen. Ted Cruz, they man­aged to stir up enough Re­pub­lic­an voters, par­tic­u­larly in rur­al and small-town areas out­side of Sedg­wick County (Wichita), to pull Estes across the fin­ish line. Late GOP polling showed that among 4th Dis­trict voters fol­low­ing the race most closely, the Demo­crat had ac­tu­ally pulled slightly ahead. The Cook Polit­ic­al Re­port rat­ing for the race shif­ted from “Sol­id Re­pub­lic­an” to “Likely Re­pub­lic­an” on Thursday, April 6, and one more notch to “Lean Re­pub­lic­an” on Monday, the day be­fore the elec­tion.

The Geor­gia spe­cial elec­tion com­ing up on Tues­day is a jungle-primary elec­tion, as the top two fin­ish­ers of the 18 filed can­did­ates, in­clud­ing 11 Re­pub­lic­ans and five Demo­crats, will go in­to a June 20 run­off. The dis­trict is primar­ily At­lanta sub­urbs, centered on Roswell. Rom­ney beat Pres­id­ent Obama by 24 points there, 61 to 37 per­cent, but Trump pre­vailed by only a point and a half, 48 to 47 per­cent, last year. That re­flects some change in the nature of the dis­trict but more that this is a tra­di­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an, up­scale sub­urb­an dis­trict rather than a Trump-ori­ented, small-town, or rur­al and pop­u­list one. The PVI for this dis­trict is R+8, mak­ing it the 165th-most-Re­pub­lic­an dis­trict in the coun­try. Most of the ac­tion in con­gres­sion­al elec­tions hap­pens in swing dis­tricts that are between R+5 and D+5.

There are five Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ates split­ting up most of the GOP vote and only one Demo­crat, Jon Os­soff—a 30-year-old former con­gres­sion­al staffer and film doc­u­ment­ari­an who had raised an as­ton­ish­ing $8.3 mil­lion as of March 29, largely in out-of-state, small dona­tions from a very agit­ated Demo­crat­ic and lib­er­al donor base. While Demo­crats main­tained a largely hands-off status in Kan­sas, in Geor­gia there is a full-court press, with at least nine DCCC field staff on the ground. Demo­crats are work­ing hard to get Os­soff across the fin­ish line on Tues­day, avoid­ing a run­off.

The highest-pro­file Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ate is former Geor­gia Sec­ret­ary of State Kar­en Han­del, but a few more hope­fuls also have some no­tori­ety: Bob Gray, run­ning as the Trump-style busi­ness­man, com­ing out of the tech sec­tor; former state Sen. Jud­son Hill, more the es­tab­lish­ment busi­ness can­did­ate; Dav­id Ab­roms, an­oth­er busi­ness­man but from the en­ergy sec­tor; Bruce LeV­ell, a jew­elry busi­ness­man who ran Trump’s Na­tion­al Di­versity Co­ali­tion; and former state Sen. Dan Moody. None have par­tic­u­larly caught on, and the im­me­di­ate chal­lenge for Re­pub­lic­ans is to keep Os­soff un­der 50 per­cent, for­cing a run­off.

Polling shows Os­soff with­in strik­ing dis­tance of 50 per­cent. If he wins on Tues­day, this will be a big deal. Should Re­pub­lic­ans force a run­off and ul­ti­mately win the dis­trict in June, that would be a gi­gant­ic cause for re­lief among Re­pub­lic­ans, while a Demo­crat­ic win in the run­off would be a good sign for Demo­crats but not earth-shat­ter­ing like an April shutout vic­tory would be.