Jump to Any Race
National Politics|By Charlie Cook, April 25, 2017
This story was originally published on nationaljournal.com on April 21, 2017

Two con­gres­sion­al spe­cial elec­tions in as many weeks make clear that while the Re­pub­lic­an Party is not in a free fall, things are not co­pacet­ic, either. Re­pub­lic­an state Treas­urer Ron Estes won last week’s spe­cial elec­tion in Kan­sas’s 4th Dis­trict to fill the va­cancy cre­ated by Mike Pom­peo’s nom­in­a­tion to head the CIA, but his 5-point vic­tory was far short of the mar­gins pos­ted by Pom­peo (31 points) and Don­ald Trump (27) last year, and Mitt Rom­ney (26) in 2012.

Earli­er this week, Re­pub­lic­ans man­aged to pre­vent 30-year-old Demo­crat Jon Os­soff from win­ning Geor­gia’s 6th Dis­trict spe­cial elec­tion for the seat left open when Tom Price be­came sec­ret­ary of Health and Hu­man Ser­vices. In what should have been a cake­walk for the GOP, Os­soff fell less than 2 points short of the 50 per­cent tally that would have sent him to Wash­ing­ton. Re­pub­lic­an con­gres­sion­al, gubernat­ori­al, and sen­at­ori­al can­did­ates have in re­cent years won the dis­trict by large double-di­git mar­gins. The out­come of the June 20 run­off now be­comes im­port­ant.

These res­ults are frus­trat­ing to people who like their polit­ics simple, as many ideo­logues and par­tis­ans tend to. The elec­tions can be in­ter­preted in either of two ways, de­pend­ing on your dis­pos­i­tion: Per­haps the Re­pub­lic­an train is go­ing hor­ribly off the tracks, or it’s chug­ging along just fine. The an­swer de­pends on fu­ture events.

Will Trump and the con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans con­tin­ue to act in a way that in­furi­ates the Demo­crat­ic base, and keeps it highly mo­tiv­ated and chomp­ing to get to the polls in spe­cial elec­tions and in next year’s midterms?

An­oth­er factor is a per­cep­tion of com­pet­ence. Wheth­er one agrees or dis­agrees with the policies of Trump and con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans, it may mat­ter more wheth­er they seem to know what they’re do­ing and go­ing about it in a pro­fes­sion­al way. A gov­ern­ment shut­down would likely not en­hance the pub­lic’s per­cep­tion of Re­pub­lic­an com­pet­ence in Wash­ing­ton.

Pres­id­en­tial trans­itions are in­her­ently bumpy, some more than oth­ers. Ob­vi­ously the easi­est trans­ition is when an in­cum­bent pres­id­ent is reelec­ted—some aides from the ori­gin­al team leave, oth­ers are moved around, and some new people are ad­ded. Next easi­est is when a sit­ting vice pres­id­ent or someone else in the pre­vi­ous ad­min­is­tra­tion takes over. A little bumpi­er is when the new pres­id­ent is from the same party but hasn’t been a part of the pre­vi­ous ad­min­is­tra­tion.

A trans­ition is far more dif­fi­cult when an in­sider from the op­pos­ite party be­comes pres­id­ent and trig­gers a whole­sale change in dir­ec­tion and per­son­nel. But the greatest tur­bu­lence oc­curs when an out­sider from the op­pos­i­tion party takes over, caus­ing dra­mat­ic changes in dir­ec­tion, agenda, per­son­nel, and style. The changeover from Demo­crat­ic Pres­id­ent Obama to Re­pub­lic­an Trump, who had nev­er worked in gov­ern­ment—elec­ted or ap­poin­ted, ci­vil­ian or mil­it­ary—is the most far-reach­ing change ima­gin­able. This should not come as a shock. Voters know­ingly chose jolt­ing change.

As this column ar­gued earli­er this week, Trump’s know­ledge and un­der­stand­ing of policy and pro­cess has doubled or tripled every 30 days since he took of­fice, from a stand­ing start. As he has be­gun to mas­ter his brief, White House policies have be­gun to re­vert to the mean, be­com­ing more or less what an­oth­er Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­ent might have done and, in some cases, not too dif­fer­ent from what Obama might have done. Trump has found that this gov­ern­ing stuff is a lot more com­plic­ated than it looked when he watched cable news every night.

Hav­ing a new team with a lot of people who have nev­er served in gov­ern­ment in­ev­it­ably makes the ini­tial ride more bumpy, and that is cer­tainly the case here. A base­ball team early in spring train­ing looks far less pro­fi­cient than it will look in the second half of the sea­son or in the play­offs. The fact that a lot of po­s­i­tions in this ad­min­is­tra­tion have not yet been filled fur­ther erodes its abil­ity to gov­ern in a com­pet­ent way.

As we get deep­er in­to the year, it mat­ters a great deal wheth­er a new pres­id­ent gets things done smoothly or still op­er­ates in a Key­stone Kops sort of way.

Fi­nally, does the Re­pub­lic­an base see Trump and con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans try­ing to do what they were elec­ted to do, even if they go about things in a clumsy man­ner? Most people un­der­stand that cir­cum­stances change, but the base needs to be­lieve that its party’s val­ues have re­mained the same even if cir­cum­stances force dif­fer­ent out­comes.

The midterms are shap­ing up as a bi­furc­ated elec­tion. Re­pub­lic­ans are play­ing de­fense in the House, try­ing to hold on to a ma­jor­ity that now seems more pre­cari­ous than ori­gin­ally thought. But in the Sen­ate, where Re­pub­lic­ans have a 52-48 ma­jor­ity, it is Demo­crats who are play­ing de­fense. Demo­crats are pay­ing the price for hav­ing fant­ast­ic elec­tions in 2006, dur­ing Pres­id­ent George W. Bush’s second term, when the midterm elec­tions were heav­ily af­fected by the in­creas­ingly un­pop­u­lar Ir­aq War, and in 2012, when Obama was reelec­ted. Demo­crats are de­fend­ing 25 seats, in­clud­ing 10 in states Trump car­ried, five by 19 points or more, while Re­pub­lic­ans are de­fend­ing nine seats, only one of which went for Hil­lary Clin­ton last year.

The course for the midterms is still to be de­term­ined. How things go over the next six months will de­term­ine how many law­makers re­tire, who steps up to run for open seats, and the qual­ity of the can­did­ates who chal­lenge in­cum­bents. A party that is per­ceived as hav­ing the wind at its back tends to have few­er re­tire­ments and bet­ter re­cruit­ing than one fa­cing head­winds. In short, the 2018 midterm-elec­tion book is still in its early chapters.