By Jim Ellis
Feb. 3, 2017 — Soon we will be moving fully into special election season and the Democrats have already been dealt some early bad breaks, but not from Republicans.
In the four special elections created because President Trump appointed House members to various Trump administration positions, a quartet of Republican seats will go to election before the 4th of July, at least theoretically giving Democrats some opportunity for gains.
A fifth special, the Democratic CA-34 seat vacated when Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles) resigned to accept Gov. Jerry Brown’s (D) appointment as California Attorney General, will be decided on June 6. Democrats should have no trouble advancing two party members to the special general election.
The KS-4 seat of CIA Director Mike Pompeo, anchored in Wichita, KS, is the most likely to remain in the Republican column. The GOP will go to convention and choose a nominee at the end of next week (Feb. 9). This individual will then become a prohibitive favorite for the April 11th election.
Post-Kansas, the Democrats are running into self-inflicted trouble. The Montana at-large seat could be competitive, under certain circumstances. While Republicans have done well in recent federal elections, the Democratic governor, Steve Bullock, is now in his second term. Just last year, Democrats held four out of five elected statewide offices, proving that they are a viable force in state politics. Therefore, seeing a competitive at-large congressional special election develop is probable; or was.
Such was the case before two-term Montana School Superintendent Denise Juneau (D) decided not to enter the special election. Twice elected statewide, Juneau challenged Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Whitefish) in November and lost 56-40 percent. When President Trump tabbed Zinke for Interior Secretary, it was assumed that Juneau would jump into the at-large race and give the Democrats at least a fighting chance in a special election scenario where most anything can happen.
With her out, it appears that defeated Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Gianforte, who held Gov. Bullock to a surprisingly close 50-46 percent win in November, becomes the heavy favorite to hold the seat in the Republican column.
On the heels of Juneau opting out in Montana, South Carolina state Sen. Vincent Sheheen (D) followed suit; he, too, announcing that he will not enter his state’s 5th District special election to replace Office of Management & Budget Director-designate Mick Mulvaney (R-Lancaster/Rock Hill).
Sheheen was twice the Democratic gubernatorial nominee, facing now former governor and current US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikky Haley (R) both times. In 2010, he held Haley to only a 51-47 percent victory margin. Though the 5th has become solidly Republican since Mulvaney defeated then-Rep. John Spratt (D) in 2010, Sheheen would have been a strong candidate, and special election turnouts can bring unusual results as noted above. Without Sheheen, whoever comes through what promises to be a crowded Republican field will now become a prohibitive favorite to continue the GOP’s hold on the district.
But Health & Human Services Secretary-designate Tom Price’s (R-Roswell) GA-6 district appears as the place Democrats want to make a stand. They’re buoyed because Hillary Clinton lost this reliably Republican district by just one percentage point, 48-47 percent (even though Rep. Price scored 62 percent before the same electorate), thus they believe the eventual Democratic nominee would have a fighting chance under a special election turnout model.
In this case, the party does have an emerging candidate, as the liberal faction appears to be gravitating toward local investigative filmmaker and activist Jon Ossoff who is developing a national fundraising base.
The party leaders boosted him to the front of the local anti-Trump protests, having him link arms with representatives John Lewis (D-Atlanta) and Hank Johnson (D-Lithonia) in order to attract media attention to his candidacy. At least from a fundraising perspective, this short-term ploy may be working.
Once the election is called and the situation normalizes, the Republicans will likely take GA-6, too, but this looks to be the race to watch. Whether the Democrats left two seats on the table is open to debate, but certainly their chances would have been better with marquis candidates.