Democrats should be happy. President Donald Trump’s approval ratings are not that stellar, around what George W. Bush’s were before the 2006 wave. The GOP owned a deeply unpopular war, scores of Americans were getting killed or wounded in Iraq on a daily basis—the country was on the verge of all-out civil war, and corruption scandals from Rep. Tom Delay (R-TX) and Duke Cunningham (R-CA) surely only added to the notion that a change in management was needed in Washington. We’re not fighting any wars with an intensity level of Iraq in 2006, any allegations of impropriety by Trump (i.e. Russian collusion) have yielded no evidence, and Democrats cannot find qualified candidates, unlike their 2006 farm system that found many. With Jon Ossoff’s loss in Georgia’s sixth congressional district to Republican Karen Handel, Democrats and their recruitment efforts for 2018 have taken another punch to the gut. Yes, the blame game on the Left has begun. And yes, Democrats have been performing better than expected, but they’re still losing.
Also, if Ossoff had won, the Democrats would still be in the candidate recruitment slump. In 2010, as The New York Times’ Nate Silver of the Upshot blog noted, Republicans had 73 vulnerable seats to pick off for the midterms. Democrats only have 11 for 2018, far short of the 24 they need to flip the House. Silver tossed another wet blanket on Democratic 2018 hopes, noting that even a favorable political climate alone doesn’t mean the Democrats will retake the House.
The president’s party just about always loses seats in the midterm elections, and it generally gets clobbered when the president’s approval rating is beneath 50 percent, much less beneath 40. But alone, a strong national political environment doesn’t guarantee Democratic control of the House.
The Democrats just don’t have many top-tier opportunities to win Republican-held seats. This year, just 11 Republicans represent seats with a Democratic tilt in recent presidential elections.
Back in 2010, the Republicans had 73 such opportunities. The election in 2006 is a particularly relevant example, because Democrats had a somewhat similar, if better, set of opportunities.
Those chances yielded 31 seats, just a few more than the 24 seats they need in 2018. But Democrats also had some good luck in 2006 that will be hard to duplicate: There were a half dozen safely Republican districts where the incumbent succumbed to scandal or indictment, including Tom DeLay, a House majority leader.
The Republicans have a real shot to retain control of the House in a political climate that would doom them under typical circumstances. There are a lot of reasons for this structural G.O.P. advantage, like partisan gerrymandering, the inefficient distribution of Democrats in heavily Democratic cities, and the benefit of incumbency.
To retake the House, Democrats will ultimately need to carry seats with a clear Republican tradition. This year’s special elections, including Jon Ossoff’s loss to Karen Handel in Georgia, are a reminder that it will indeed be difficult for Democrats to win in Republican-leaning districts, just as it was for the Democrats in 2006 or for Republicans on Democratic-leaning turf in 2010.
It all boils—again—down to candidates. Republicans pissed in that pool when they retook the rural areas, elected a record number of state office holders, two-thirds of the governorships, and 69/99 state legislatures. That’s where the fresh blood comes from—and it’s something that appears to elude the comprehension of the Left. A state representative or senator might become attorney general or secretary of state, which then could morph into gubernatorial ambitions, and finally a congressional or senate seat. The other path, if this candidate does well, is the presidency. The point is Republicans have found that the state office holders are the key to keeping the party vibrant and stacked candidate-wise for future elections. Granted, some Democrats know this is the case, but they have to compete in areas where Democrats are ill-suited to win, unless they’re able to run campaigns that buck the progressive ethos that dominates the urban and coastal elite wings of the party. They’re also the ones who write the checks. The political infrastructure for Democrats in rural America is more or less absent. In Appalachia alone, Hillary Clinton only won 21 of the 490 counties that dot this region of America. That’s a total collapse. So, on top of that rebuilding project, you have to find existing Democrats in statewide offices and convince them to leave a sure thing, which is their current post, and risk it all on an election with a high probability for defeat. After Ossoff, don’t be shocked if this candidate recruitment issue on the Left worsens.
Cohn does offer some glimmer of hope:
The good news for Democrats is that they don’t need to win all of these Republican-leaning districts or even most of them. Democrats might only need to win, say, 17 of the 60 seats where Republicans are favored, but where Democrats have a realistic chance
In that sense, these Democratic losses are entirely consistent with the possibility of a House takeover. If Democrats keep running ahead of expectations across those plausibly competitive Republican-held seats, many seats will ultimately fall their way. But they will certainly lose more than they win. The question is whether they win enough, and no special election offers the answer to that.
Yes, special elections aren’t the best indicators for midterm projections, but the GOP still won. And that’s what matters. Moreover, the level at which the GOP base came home in GA-06 has stunned pollsters—and this district was not one that favored Trump at all. Democrats are wondering if they need to go more to the Left to win over moderate Republican suburban voters. I’m going to bet that’s only going to push them more over to the GOP camp, especially if Nancy Pelosi is the face of the party.