Testing 'The Resistance:' Can Democrats Pull Off Upsets in Kansas and Georgia?

Posted: Apr 11, 2017 2:35 PM

We've been following Democrats' attempts to regain political momentum in the weeks and months after Donald Trump's upset victory last November, and so far, the much-hyped energy and passion of "the resistance" has not translated into electoral success. The party and its base have poured resources into a string of state legislative races, in an effort to flip seats from red to blue. Four of those targeted special elections took place in solidly Democratic states, and each of them resulted in Republicans holding their ground; zero seats changed partisan hands. A fifth special election in Louisiana did result in a shift in party control, just not the kind Democrats were hoping for.  The Resistance movement has, thus far, been an electoral flop.

But that could change in a major way over the next week.  Two red state special elections in Republican-held districts offer Democrats a pair of opportunities to pull big upsets, either one of which could signal a rising Democratic tide heading toward the 2018 midterm cycle.  Today, voters in Kansas will choose a replacement for President Trump's choice to lead the CIA, former Congressman Mike Pompeo.  The conservative represented KS-04 for six years, and the seat has been controlled by the GOP for more than two decades.  But liberal activists sense that the race is closer than it should be in a district Trump carried comfortably with 60 percent of the vote.  They're pumping small donations into the contest from around the country, hoping to propel Democrat James Thompson to a statement win.  In response, Republicans are pulling out all the stops to protect the seat:

President Donald Trump stepped Monday into an unusually competitive special congressional election in Kansas, recording a get-out-the-vote call on behalf of Republican candidate Ron Estes. The robocall from Trump came as the contest also pulled U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas to Wichita to campaign for Estes and amid a flood of out-of-state GOP money ahead of Tuesday’s election in the 4th Congressional District of southern Kansas. It was the first special congressional election since Trump’s election as president last year. “Republican Ron Estes needs your vote and needs it badly,” Trump said in the minute-long call. “Our country needs help. Ron is going to be helping us, big league.” ... A raft of big GOP campaign donations and a last-minute ad buy last week of nearly $100,000 by the National Republican Congressional Committee also signaled GOP anxiety over the seat, flooding the local airways with negative advertising against Thompson, a civil rights attorney.

Dropping $100k in south-central Kansas is no small thing, nor is deploying a high-profile Senator, or blasting out a presidential robocall. (The Vice President is also getting in on the act).  The GOP nominee in the race has reportedly been underwhelming as a candidate, perhaps taking his victory for granted in such a safe-looking jurisdiction.  Some recent internal polling has suggested that the contest could be decided by a single-digit margin, with one survey putting Estes ahead by a single point.  If he loses, or wins by a razor-thin margin, Democrats will seize on the outcome as evidence that an anti-Trump wave is building.  So far, early voting is tilting slightly Republican:

“I’ve heard people whose opinions I respect tell me they think it would be single digits,” said Clay Barker, the executive director of the Kansas Republican Party...Many GOP operatives have blamed the surprisingly competitive race on Estes’ campaign, which saw the Republican treasurer avoid some candidate forums and shoot an ad where he stood in a swamp and asked voters to help him drain it in a nod to one of Trump’s campaign slogans. Bob Beatty, a political scientist at Washburn University, said Estes’ swamp ad was problematic both because “the image is ripe for mockery” and because Estes, as a two-term state official, cannot credibly run as an outsider who is going to drain the swamp...Nearly 13,000 GOP voters had cast ballots in advance by mail or in-person compared to about 10,900 Democrats as of Monday morning, according to data provided by the Republican Party. Another 3,400 unaffiliated voters, who could tip the balance, had also cast ballots.
Another important non-Trump factor in this race is the deep unpopularity of Kansas Governor Sam Brownback, who has presided over a budget mess.  Meanwhile, in Georgia, a highly-anticipated special election is one week away.  The seat opened up when Rep. Tom Price joined the Trump administration as HHS Secretary.  Price easily won GA-06 with nearly 62 percent of the vote last November, but Trump barely eked out a one-point victory there. In other words, this is a traditionally-Republican, Trump-skeptical district.  Democrats have pinned their hopes on a young filmmaker, who is hoping to ride a massive fundraising haul (fully 95 percent of which has come from out-of-state liberals) to win next Tuesday's "jungle primary" outright.  If no candidate hits 50-plus-one percent on Tuesday, the winner will be determined between the top two vote-getters in a June run-off -- in which the GOP would be more heavily favored.  Democrats are hoping that a divided GOP field, Trump dissatisfaction, and Democratic enthusiasm could create a victory recipe for young Jon Ossoff, whom Republicans have been hitting as a Pelosi-style liberal and a resume inflator.  The Cook Political Report rates the contest as a toss-up.

Three additional special Congressional elections are slated for this spring and early summer in South Carolina, Montana and California.  The only one seen as possibly competitive is the race in Big Sky country, as the other two are taking place in very conservative and liberal districts, respectively.  I'll leave you with this ad linking Ossoff to Pelosi's agenda: