Democrats are ready to conduct fresh polling in South Carolina. In Montana, Republicans worry their nominee is losing ground just a week out. And in Georgia, operatives from both parties now consider the Democratic candidate a favorite to pull off what pundits would have considered in January a monumental upset.
Suddenly, the special House elections in these three states have become a crucial test for both parties nationwide. Will Donald Trump’s tailspin cost Republicans their seats, or will Democrats squander an early opportunity to declare their political resurgence?
Republicans are plainly nervous about the effect of this month’s string of allegations against Trump, concerned their congressional candidates can ill afford late headwinds from Washington in already tight contests.
In the case of Montana’s at-large House seat and Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, the races have been competitive and heavily scrutinized for months. But Democrats now also see a new opportunity to not only pick up a House seat but fundamentally change the political calculus for Republicans on Capitol Hill.
Winning seats in Republican-leaning districts might be necessary, party operatives think, to persuade Republicans to support an independent commission examining ties between Trump campaign officials and the Kremlin.
“The only thing we can count on is Republicans acting in their own electoral best interest,” said Zac Petkanas, a Democratic strategist and former senior aide to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. “When the specials show there is a massive shift toward Democrats, regardless of who wins or loses, that is going to make Republicans rethink how they’re handling Trump.”
Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan reiterated Wednesday that he will continue to support the existing congressional inquiries into the alleged connections, dismissing Democratic calls for a special prosecutor.
Democrats have already had two strong showings in House special elections this year: In April, an underfunded candidate in Kansas lost by only 7 points, in a district the GOP won by more than 30 points last year. A week later, in Georgia, Democrat Jon Ossoff nearly won outright a House race in the Atlanta suburbs – moving on to a June run-off against Republican Karen Handel.
Both results were driven by a motivated Democratic base, so incensed by Trump they voted at rates rarely seen from the party rank-and-file. To Democratic strategists, these are the voters – along with a group of Trump-wary independents – who they expect to be most riled by Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey.
“The thing that drove people to turn out in Georgia and Kansas was very much a check-and-balance motive,” said Meredith Kelly, spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “This will feed into that again, and at a good time.”
Maybe just as importantly, the blanket media coverage of Trump could make it difficult for Republicans to talk about anything other than the president.
“The scandals that are happening right now are going to dominate the news for the foreseeable future leading up to the special election,” Petkanas said. “So if Republican candidates were hoping for a reprieve so they can talk about tax reform or something else, they have another thing coming.”
Despite Republican worry, Democrats are just as uncertain about the next special election, next week’s race in Montana. There, Democrat Rob Quist—a folk music singer with a populist profile—faces Republican Greg Gianforte in a contest some party strategists see as out of reach.
But Republicans watching the race say they fear that Gianforte, hindered by attacks that labeled him as a rich carpetbagger, is losing ground in the race’s final weeks. One source familiar with polling of the race, in fact, says his lead is as small as five points.
“Quist has done a good job feeding an image as a Montana outsider, contrasted with the Jersey billionaire who wants to sell off public lands,” said one national Republican strategist, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about party strategy.
While Montana’s and Georgia’s races have commanded national media attention for months, a special House race in South Carolina has so far drawn little interest. Democrat Archie Parnell will take on either former Republican state Rep. Ralph Norman or GOP state House Speaker Pro Tempore Tommy Pope in an election slated for June 20.
The race, according to both parties, remains a longshot for Democrats. But officials at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee say they plan to order up new polls in the district, conscious that Trump’s deep unpopularity has already opened up unexpected opportunities across the electoral map.
The biggest showdown, however, remains in Georgia. Ossoff is a national star for Democrats, the face of a party’s hoped-for electoral backlash to Trump.
Republicans had hoped he would fade after the first round of voting in April, where the Democrat received 48 percent of the vote. But instead, he’s maintained and even grown his support thanks to Trump’s unpopularity in the district and a campaign focused on centrist issues like wasteful spending.
“Jon Ossoff is probably the slight favorite,” said the Republican strategist. “But there’s a good amount of time left between now and then to really get engaged there and see some movement.”
Democrats contend that Republicans, in Georgia and elsewhere, are trying to pump up expectations in Republican-leaning districts the party doesn’t actually need to win back a House majority in 2018.
But regardless of spin, the party will face real questions about strength if it can’t win even right-leaning seats in the current environment. Republicans have already accused Democrats of celebrating moral victories in Kansas and Georgia at the expense of actually showing it defeat Republican candidates.
“When it comes to moral victories, Democrats are undefeated,” said Matt Gorman, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. “Our party prefers actual victories.”