President Trump is historically unpopular, and the question on everyone's minds this month is how much of that unfavorability could overflow into the 2018 elections. The special elections in Georgia and Kansas to replace Trump's Health and Human Service Secretary Tom Price and the Director of the CIA, Mike Pompeo, respectively, might offer an early, if revealing, testing ground for how things could go next November.
To take back the House, Democrats will need to net 24 seats in 2018, a task that many analysts once considered almost impossible due to the slim number of competitive congressional districts on the map. "In the next Congress, there will be fewer than two dozen House Republicans sitting in congressional districts won by Barack Obama in 2012," The Washington Post's Stuart Rothenberg writes. "That means Democrats will need to swipe at least a handful of districts carried by Mitt Romney four years ago to win control, and that is a huge, uphill fight for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee."
But that was all before Tuesday night.
Republican Ron Estes still managed to win Kansas' 4th district, but it wasn't nearly the blow-out it should have been. His opponent, James Thompson, was a relative nobody and dramatically underfunded by comparison — $100,000 was spent on ads by the Republican Party in the state, while the Democratic Party declined to spend even just $20,000 on campaign mailers.
And while the district typically has twice as many registered Republicans as Democrats, the early vote split 44.5 percent Democratic and 43.5 percent Republican, one GOP pollster told CNN — a usual signpost of a heavily energized base. "The Democratic base is fully mobilized and unlikely to be defused," said one Republican House member who wanted to speak under anonymity. "We will have to beat them. That will take motivating our base. So far we have not."
But Estes' underperformance is a big flashing alarm for Republicans. Admittedly, Estes had several factors working against him — for one, he was the treasurer under the unpopular Republican Gov. Sam Brownback, who is blamed for ruining the state's finances. But consider that Estes won by just 6.8 percent, compared to President Trump's 27 percent margin on Hillary Clinton in the same district in November. That is a massive flop — a bruising margin of 20.3 points. Nate Silver did the math and concluded that "if every district behaved like that, Dems would gain 122 (!) House seats next November." And after crunching Dave Wasserman's numbers, The Washington Examiner similarly concluded that "if turnout across all 435 districts followed this same pattern of partisan participation, then Democrats would win a 314-seat majority in the 435-seat House of Representatives next year."
But Democrats will need to step up significantly, and that's where Georgia comes into play. While the Democratic Party was more or less resigned to losing Kansas (perhaps to their great detriment, as Paul Blest notes), Georgia is turning into a comparatively fierce battleground. Democrat Jon Ossoff is heavily funded and has 70 paid staffers, which NPR writes is "triple the usual House campaign." He is currently dominating the race with the support of 43 percent of likely voters (the next highest-polling candidate is Karen Handel, a Republican, with 15 percent) and the April 18 election is just around the corner.
But Ossoff will still need more than 50 percent of the vote if he is to avoid a June 20 runoff, where his chances of seizing a plurality in the conservative district slim considerably.
And while Wasserman notes that Democrats won't need to see the same 20 percent overperformance across the country that they saw in Kansas, "if they can't win [congressional districts] Trump won by 1.5 percent," as is the case in Georgia's 6th, "they can't win the House."