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The Real Lessons of Special Elections Results

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

JOHNSTOWN, Pa. -- Mark Critz was on top of the world.

Seven years ago this May, Critz, the longtime district director for the powerful Western Pennsylvania Democratic congressman Jack Murtha, won his late boss's seat in a hard-fought special election.

He held the seat for Democrats, handing then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi a symbolic victory that she could point to as proof that Democrats were well on their way to expanding their majority that November.

Seven months later, Democrats lost 63 seats in the House -- their worst electoral defeat in decades -- as disaffected centrist Democrats, conservative-leaning independents and Republicans turned out big.

Voters cast their lots against then-President Barack Obama and against the Democratic Party, and handed the House majority back to Republicans just four years after sweeping them out of office for essentially the same reason: being out of touch and out of sync with Main Street America's economic concerns.

Critz's victory wasn't the only special election that Democrats won that year; they won six of them in the lead-up to Obama's first midterm election cycle.

Reporters and pundits in Washington, D.C., were quick to report after each of those wins that any suggestion of 2010 becoming a wave election year for Republicans was a poor calculation.

They were all wrong.

So, what happened?

How could six special elections in one cycle all go to the same party and that party end up getting shellacked a few months later?

The answers are complicated.

But, simply put, special elections are not harbingers of what the next midterm elections' outcome will be -- not in the same year, and certainly not two years ahead of the next Election Day.

Two weeks ago, the political class, the progressives and the Republican establishment all glued their eyes to a special election in Kansas to replace Republican Rep. Mike Pompeo, who joined President Trump's administration as CIA director.

The state treasurer, Republican Ron Estes, won, beating Democrat rival James Thompson by 8 percentage points.

Immediately, Democrats cried victory. Why? Well, because Estes didn't win bigger.

Headlines and tweets proclaimed a "political earthquake," a "major shakeup" and a "harbinger for the 2018" midterms.

All of them claimed the race was a referendum on Trump.

They were wrong.

Special elections are just that: special. They are typically driven by local issues and rarely understood by national political reporters who parachute into a district and cover the race from a national perspective, overlooking the local issues that drive voter sentiments.

Everyone looks to interview that one voter who dislikes President Trump, who blames him for switching their vote from reliable Republican to Democrat, and then calls it a story.

The truth is, it is more complicated than that -- and it is that kind of reporting (or pontificating) that led to a lot of political professionals getting last year's election results so horribly wrong.

A couple of things were at play in Kansas.

The state's Republican governor, Sam Brownback, is really, really unpopular; that baggage hurt Estes, who serves with him in state government.

The thing Thompson got right was messaging. Despite his past life as a Bernie Sanders activist, Thompson wisely portrayed himself as a working-class kid who joined the military, got a college degree and is living the American dream through hard work.

Also, he knows how to shoot a gun -- an assault weapon, to be specific.

Thompson ran on family values, his service and a message of fighting for jobs, traditions, veterans and liberty. In short, he ran as though he were a Republican.

His ad was strikingly similar to the ads run by centrist pro-gun pro-life Blue Dog Democrats who ran and won big for the House in 2006.

The money raised for him by outside progressive groups in small donations was remarkable, too.

The larger lessons of this specific special election have been wildly missed, but the evidence is right under everyone's nose.

First, Democrats are super-energized; they proved that with the amount of money they poured in for Thompson. Second, it is clear that they are willing to go there with a moderate economic message -- at least in this race -- and that is important.

And third, the biggest lesson of this special election is that Democrats are going to run candidates everywhere; there will be Republican incumbents who have not seen a competitive race in their congressional districts for several cycles but will see one next year.

Mike Mikus, the Democratic strategist who guided Mark Critz in his special election victory and again the following November, says Democrats would be wise to repeat the formula they used in 2006, when they recruited candidates in House districts who reflected the values of the region.

And message is everything in House races.

"Look, when Critz ran, our tag-line was 'Pro-life, pro-gun, pro-jobs,'" said Mikus. "You can't recruit progressive candidates to run in a place like Cambria County, Pennsylvania, and expect them to win.

"The lessons that we should be focusing on with all of these special elections is not necessarily the outcome, but what message worked and how did we do in fundraising," he said. "That is our blueprint for 2018, not how many wins we notch."

Republicans need to get disciplined on message and busy raising money if they want to hold on to their majority. And Democrats need to learn the real lessons of this special election cycle and ignore the empty flattery and hype if they want to make any headway in 2018.

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