Why are Democrats writing off winnable elections?

Special elections are here and Trump and the Republicans are vulnerable. Democrats need to step it up.

Democrats, time to represent.
(Image credit: GrandeDuc / Alamy Stock Photo)

Last week, Congressman Jim Clyburn, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's national mobilization chair in 2016, was asked if the DCCC planned to get more involved in the upcoming Montana special congressional election to replace new Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. Clyburn gave a nine-word response: "Montana special election? Oh, I didn't know about that."

That about says it all. The Democratic Party seems to be ignoring its special elections in Montana, Georgia, and Kansas, and they didn't even contest a Congressional district in Texas that Clinton won. This is dumbfounding.

The result? In the first special election to replace a Trump Cabinet appointee, Democrat James Thompson — with virtually no backing from the DCCC or the Democratic National Committee — lost by only seven points to Ron Estes, a statewide elected official who received a flood of money and support from the national Republican Party. In one of the most conservative districts in the country, a progressive Democrat came just 8,000 votes short of a miracle — all in spite of his own party. It's very likely that Estes won the race because of the last-minute investment by the Republicans and the utter lack of any investment by the Democrats.

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Which raises the question: Is the Democratic Party even trying?

Special elections are volatile by design. Former Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown's (R) win in a 2010 special election to replace the late Ted Kennedy (D) is the most obvious recent example: In one of the most liberal states in the country, which former President Barack Obama had won 14 months earlier by 61 percent, Brown — running as an independent-minded Washington outsider against an aloof Democrat — eked out a win. Although turnout in the race was higher than expected, it was a full eight percentage points lower than it had been in 2008.

Brown lost the seat two years later to Elizabeth Warren, but the point stands that with a strong candidate and low turnout, pretty much anything can happen. Obama, at that point, was at a 50 percent approval rating. Trump's approval rating last week was 34 percent.

After a public callout by Rachel Maddow, the Democrats dragged themselves into the tight Georgia special election, one that could see Democrat Jon Ossoff win the seat formerly held by new Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price. Ossoff's race has received national attention because Ossoff, a young Democrat who was endorsed by Congressmen John Lewis and Hank Johnson, is running in a district nearly won by Hillary Clinton in 2016. Ossoff actually has an outside chance of reaching the 50 percent threshold and avoiding a runoff election against the top Republican candidate.

While Ossoff was polling slightly ahead of the Republican field even in the earliest polls, he's blown the field wide open more recently, partly because of financial support from the Democratic Party — according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, he's raised $8.3 million so far and has over $2 million on hand, and the DCCC also set up a link on its website where volunteers from all over can virtually phone bank for him.

But by the same token, national Democrats barely paid any attention at all to yesterday's race in Kansas. Thompson, a civil rights lawyer nominated by Democrats to run for the seat vacated by CIA Director Mike Pompeo, wasn't able to get much help from his cash-poor state party or the national party, which only started doing live calls for him the day before the election. In their place, the grassroots stepped up: The Huffington Post reported over the weekend that Thompson had raised $240,000 from around 20,000 individual donors. That was no match for the DCCC's Republican counterpart, which dumped nearly six figures worth of ads into the race at the last minute, had Ted Cruz campaign with Estes, and did robocalls from Donald Trump and Mike Pence.

The Kansas race was a warning shot and the Georgia 6th presents the next pickup opportunity, but out of the three, Montana might be most interesting. Democrat Rob Quist, a local musician running on a platform that includes single-payer and preserving public land access, is up against Republican Greg Gianforte, a millionaire from New Jersey fresh off a statewide loss to Democratic governor Steve Bullock.

Unlike Georgia and Kansas, Montana has a reputation for being a state surprisingly amenable to Democrats in a region that's not known for it. While a Democrat hasn't held the lone Congressional seat since 1997, a Democrat has held the governor's mansion since 2005 and one of the state's two Senators, Jon Tester, is a two-term Democrat. There has been an extremely limited amount of polling done so far in the race, which doesn't take place until May 25. But in the most recent of two polls done via Google Consumer Surveys, the early numbers look good for Quist, with an eight-point lead over Gianforte.

But still, as The Huffington Posted noted, the DCCC isn't running ads in Montana, "a sign that they see the race as unwinnable and not worth the investment ― and also that they worry any support from national Democrats would make the race a referendum on the two parties." This echoes its incredulous position on Thompson's race, where a DCCC operative argued that it would have been "extremely damaging" for the national party to financially support his campaign.

A more coherent argument would be that it's wiser to save money for 2018. Still, special elections shouldn't be taken in a vacuum: These elections help build the framework of a progressive movement in places long ignored by the national party, are a litmus test for the power of the base, and can be an indicator of where efforts should be focused for the next general election.

The good news for progressives is that Thompson nearly pulled it off even against these huge odds, indicating that Trump and the Republicans are vulnerable. And the fact that Thompson and Quist's support among progressive activists and groups is strong is a sign that the Democratic left — in a fashion not dissimilar to the Bush years, when activist support helped elect Kentucky Blue Dog Ben Chandler — isn't content with waiting for the national party to save them.

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