By Jim Ellis
June 22, 2017 — Much was written and discussed yesterday about Tuesday’s surprising special election results in GA-6 and SC-5. Democrats, in particular, had raised victory expectations to unrealistically high levels for the Georgia race while spending record sums of money there, yet still suffered another crushing defeat.
Northeast from the Atlanta district some 200 miles away on Interstate 85, South Carolina Democratic candidate Archie Parnell, who the national party leadership basically considered politically dead even before he won the party nomination, lost by only two percentage points. He actually came closer to his Republican opponent than GA-6 candidate Jon Ossoff did while having 97 percent less in the way of campaign financial resources.
Predictably, Democratic congressional members, activists, and donors from around the country are not happy with the party leadership over the losses, but talk inside and outside the House of deposing the leadership team of Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD), and Assistant Minority Leader Jim Clyburn (D-SC) will soon dissipate.
Despite their losses, the Democratic leadership is still brazenly trying to sell the notion that their candidates are over-performing in the special elections, even though they lost all four Republican-vacated seats. They did win, however, the California special election to replace Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles) who departed Congress to accept an appointment as state attorney general. In that race, two Democrats advanced to the run-off from a district where President Trump managed only 11 percent of the vote in last year’s general election. Therefore, the outcome of this particular special election was never in question.
Now, we again analyze the argument that the Democrats are consistently performing better in the specials, and that this somehow is a precursor to a wave Democratic mid-term year that will propel them back into the majority. Ironically, the only place where the over-performance argument could be legitimate is in the one race that the leadership conceded from the outset: the South Carolina 5th District contest created when incumbent Mick Mulvaney (R-Lancaster/Rock Hill) was appointed director of the Office of Management & Budget.
As we have previously noted, the KS-4 and MT-AL elections that Republicans Ron Estes (R-Wichita) and Greg Gianforte (R-Bozeman) won were within the realm of normal Republican performance when looking at how the district performed in open seat or challenger situations or, in the case of at-large Montana, understanding how well Democrats have done in recent statewide elections. The Republican under-performance argument comes from linking these new candidates’ victory totals to the incumbents they are replacing. Such an analysis is truly comparing apples and oranges, and is deeply flawed.
Additionally, the Georgia race was never going to be a precursor for any political trend because the excessive spending skews the results to the point that it destroys any legitimate analysis. Considering what looks to be approximately $50 million in aggregate expenditures, with probably more than $35 million going to one candidate, Ossoff, alters the political picture to the degree that any derived conclusion derived becomes irrelevant. Did Karen Handel under-perform previous Republicans in open seat 6th District races? Yes, her 52 percent was low. But, no US House candidate in history has had $35 million spent against him or her, which must be taken into consideration.
To put the financial situation in further perspective, 2016 GA-6 Democratic nominee Rodney Stooksbury, who ran against then-Rep. Tom Price (R-Roswell), literally spent no money and received 38 percent of the vote against his republican opponent. Adding $35 million to the political equation for this open special election after Price moved on to become President Trump’s Health and Human Services (HHS) secretary meant moving the Democratic support factor to 48 percent. While this is a clear improvement, the total is still a losing figure. Going further, Stooksbury obtained 124,917 votes by spending no money in 2016, while Ossoff spent $35 million, or $280 per vote, to record a total of 124,893, or astonishingly, 24 fewer votes than the Democratic candidate spending zero dollars. Clearly, Ossoff did not over-perform.
The Democratic leadership made a mistake in not competing in South Carolina. Here, they had some of the factors that a minority party needs to win a special election: a district where the previous winning Republican incumbent rarely reached 60 percent; a close opposite party primary that naturally causes some of the losing candidate’s strongest supporters not to return for further voting; and, an overall low turnout. Compared to the GA-6 participation factor of 259,622 voters, the number of SC-5 special election cast ballots was only 87,876.
Therefore, while candidate Parnell exceeded expectations and did better than previous Democrats, it is still a party under-performance because the leadership made such a blunder in conceding at the outset.
As we will undoubtedly see at the 2018 mid-term campaign’s end, which is the case with most special elections held more than a year from any regular vote, the previous special election results have little bearing in helping determine the regular electorate’s voting pattern, and can be summarily dismissed.