With the first two elections over in a series of off-season special House races, the Republican party’s biggest challenge is obvious:
Republicans had hoped the protests that marked Trump’s inauguration and early presidency would peter out over time. So far, that’s not happened. Instead, the fervor of opposition to the president has powered stronger-than-expected results for Democrats at the ballot box. Unless that changes, that opposition could torment the GOP through the 2018 elections.
How to manage Trump — to appeal to the voters he attracts and the voters he offends — now ranks as the premier challenge for Republican candidates, party strategists say.
Democrats face their own challenges this year and next. In the first two contests of the year, in Kansas and Georgia, they’ve come close, but haven’t yet won a GOP-controlled seat. They’ll have to do that in significant numbers if they are to regain control of the House in the 2018 midterm elections.
Moreover, for now, they have been able to focus money and volunteer activity on a limited number of special elections. By next year, the targeted seats will balloon in number, diluting their focus.
At this point, however, it’s the Republicans’ challenge that appears to loom largest.
Conservative activist Erick Erickson on Wednesday offered a succinct wrap-up of Tuesday’s House special election in the northern suburbs of Atlanta, where he is based. Several GOP hopefuls had competed to take on the leading Democratic candidate, Jon Ossoff.
“The more closely aligned a candidate was with President Trump, the worse that candidate did,” Erickson wrote of the Republican field on his website, the Resurgent.
Republicans had a measure of success in that race, forcing Ossoff into a June 20 runoff. But the party is unable to ignore the warning signs.
In both places, Democratic turnout was proportionally better, a reflection of the intensity that is fueling the party out of power and lacking in the party fully controlling Washington. In both places, historically sites of easy wins for Republicans, Democrats improved their standing fairly dramatically.
The Democratic candidate in Kansas’s 4th District lost by seven points, about 20 points less than losses suffered by previous Democrats. In Georgia, Ossoff came within two points of winning a seat outright that Republicans have held for decades. A first place finish for the Democrat, a 30-year-old filmmaker and former congressional aide making his first run for elective office, would have been unthinkable mere months ago.
The distant second-place finisher, former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel, defeated other Republicans who had bragged of their affinity for Trump, about whom she offered measured support.
The special elections this year serve as warm-ups for 2018, when attention will turn to, at minimum, the nearly two dozen seats held by Republicans in districts won in 2016 by Hillary Clinton. Seven of those seats are in California. Only 12 House seats are held by Democrats in districts won by Trump.
Democrats would need to win nearly all of those Republican-held House seats — or a strong majority of them combined with any open seats — to take over control of the House. That will mean a large number of targets for Democrats to sort through.
“That’s going to be one of the problems for Democrats next year,” said Republican strategist Charlie Gerow, who is based in Pennsylvania. “Which ones do you target? You can’t put the resources that they put into Georgia into all those other races.”
Another challenge for Democrats, especially in those centrist districts, will be riding the enthusiasm of a party turning rapidly to the left without appearing to be out of touch with the demands of less partisan voters.
But the challenge for Republicans may be more complicated. In many cases, it may put candidates on a collision course with the president and party leaders.
The difficulty will be particularly acute in districts like the 6th in Georgia, where voters already had demonstrated an arm’s-distance relationship with the president.
With a highly educated suburban voter base, diverse and with large numbers of women, it represents the kind of district that posed problems for Trump all over the country.
Ossoff and his allies exploited that, casting the race as a referendum on the president. Millions of dollars poured in from sympathetic activists living elsewhere, especially California, financing a campaign that presented Ossoff as an antidote to the animosity and inaction of Washington.
Trump seized on Ossoff’s outside fundraising when he tweeted about the race early Wednesday.
“Dems failed in Kansas and are now failing in Georgia. Great job Karen Handel! It is now Hollywood vs. Georgia on June 20th,” he tweeted.
But in the runoff, Hollywood is less likely to be the focus than Trump himself. That will present Handel with a series of dicey decisions that will be watched by Republicans elsewhere.
For one, she needs to bring together her own supporters, Republicans more in the Mitt Romney mold, with the staunch Trump supporters who backed other candidates. When businessman Bob Gray, the most vocally pro-Trump candidate, implored his supporters Tuesday to back Handel, the room went silent, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.
Attracting those bedrock voters would be best accomplished with Trump’s help. Indeed, Handel on Wednesday said she would welcome the president to the district. (White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, said Trump would play a role “if needed.”)
But Trump’s presence could backfire by inflaming voters in the district who dislike him. That is a balance that other Republican candidates in closely divided districts will also have to mind, strategists say.
For Republican candidates, a priority will be maintaining an image of loyalty to voters, not necessarily to Trump. Another solution is something out of their control: a positive shift in the way the country views Trump, who is the least popular president in decades at this point in his presidency.
“I think what the president’s doing with regard to traveling around the country — the event he had in Wisconsin yesterday was great for rallying the base — is important,” said Republican strategist Alice Stewart. “But he needs to start having some success with regard to policy, whether it’s a healthcare bill passed, or tax reform.
“Meaningful success, not just executive orders. If we are still here in a year and a half, and there haven’t been any meaningful successes, it will be challenging for Republicans,” she said.
Much of the furor surrounding the 2017 special elections is about creating circumstances for improvement in 2018: keeping activists engaged, reaping money from enthusiastic donors and encouraging newly optimistic candidates to jump in and take a chance, as Ossoff did.
In Georgia and elsewhere, Democratic victories would make the Republican road more treacherous than it is at present.
Democrats are now aware that “there’s a pathway” to victory for them, said University of Georgia political scientist Charles S. Bullock III.
“Republicans have a lot, I think, to look at and ponder. They can’t feel particularly good.”