Good news of a sort today for Donald Trump and the embattled Republican Party, with victories in two southern congressional by-elections.
First the one that got most of the attention: the sixth district of Georgia, vacated by Republican Tom Price, who earlier this year became Secretary for Health and Human Services. Historically it’s a safe Republican seat, once held by Newt Gingrich. Price held it last year with 61.7% of the vote.
Trump, however, only won 50.8% of the two-party vote there, and given the huge advantage that incumbents have, the presidential election was expected to be a better guide to what might happen once the seat became vacant. With Trump losing popularity since his inauguration, it looked like a good opportunity for the Democrats. Money and effort were poured in accordingly: it is apparently the most expensive single Congressional race ever, with some US$55 million being spent.
Georgia runs a two-round system (also known as a “jungle primary”); in the first round, held two months ago, Democrat candidate Jon Ossoff led with 48.1% of the vote. But virtually all the other candidates were Republicans, who between them had 51.0%. So Ossoff went into a runoff today (Tuesday in the US) against Karen Handel, who had led the Republican field with 19.8%.
Opinion polls showed a close race, and so it was, but Handel came out the winner. She currently has 52.6% of the vote, although that’s expected to come down a little when postal votes are counted.
Nate Silver’s preview from yesterday gives good coverage of the expectations game; as he says, “Sometimes dumb things matter if everyone agrees that they matter.” Look forward to recriminations among the Democrats over whether things could have been done differently, and particularly over whether more capital could have been made out of Trump’s various scandals.
The other seat in contention, which mostly slipped under the radar, was the fifth district of South Carolina, vacated by the appointment of Republican Mick Mulvaney to be director of the Office of Management and Budget. Like most of the south, the district was solidly Democrat for more than a century, but finally fell to the Republicans in 2010. Mulvaney won 61.0% last year, and Trump had 59.6% in the district (all figures two-party).
So even though its sitting member had much the same margin, the South Carolina seat was seen as much less of a Democrat prospect. But it confounded expectations with a swing of almost ten per cent. Republican Ralph Norman won with 51.6%, less than three thousand votes ahead of Democrat Archie Parnell.
The Democrats therefore continue their pattern this year of making gains – sometimes fairly significant ones – but being unable to pick up seats. To some extent that seems to be bad luck, but it also reflects the sort of tactical miscalculation that plagued Hillary Clinton’s campaign last year. If some of the resources put into Georgia had instead gone to South Carolina, it’s possible that Parnell might have got over the line.
Either way, it’s a reassurance for Republicans that things are not quite so bad as they might appear. They may be in disarray in Washington, but they can still win elections. Swings like these may be enough to produce a Democrat majority in the House of Representatives at next year’s election, but they do not yet signal the sort of catastrophic collapse that might impel the GOP to take action against its rogue president.