Time for Republicans to start worrying about 2018

Jon Ossoff, Democratic candidate for Georgia's 6th Congressional District, poses for a portrait in Atlanta.
Jon Ossoff, Democratic candidate for Georgia's 6th Congressional District, poses for a portrait in Atlanta. AP

President Trump’s approval ratings are low. Democratic voters are motivated like never before. And the GOP has struggled to put away a trio of special election House races in districts where it won easily just last November.

For some Republicans, it all leads to a simple conclusion: The party should start worrying about the 2018 elections

Less than three months after taking control of Washington, the Republican Party has already been put on the political defensive -- thanks primarily to House races in Kansas, Georgia, and Montana that have proven unexpectedly difficult.

Rather than coast to easy wins in these contests, the party has been forced to respond with last-minute phone calls, visits from top party leaders, and millions of dollars in TV ads. Even President Trump has had to weigh in.

The first of the three special elections, a race in Kansas on Tuesday, was too close to call hours after the polls had closed. But even if the Republican nominee Ron Estes wins, he’ll have only barely defeated a candidate in a heavily Republican district.

Last year, the Republican Rep. Mike Pompeo (now the president’s CIA director) won re-election by more than 30 points.

“We should be concerned whether we win these races or not,” said Chip Lake, a Republican strategist closely watching another special election taking place next week in Georgia. “They’re far more competitive than they should be.”

With 19 months before the midterm election, Republicans are not yet close to panicking about their majority in either the House or Senate. And they point to a host of extenuating circumstances in these upcoming races that, they say, won’t affect November 2018 battles.

But parties that hold the White House traditionally lose seats in midterm elections. And GOP operatives say those losses could be significant if Trump and congressional Republicans don’t turn it around by then.

“At the end of the day, the national environment has to get better for us not to lose the House,” said one House GOP strategist, granted anonymity to speak candidly. “The way things are headed, we would lose the House.”

The seats in contention in Kansas, Georgia, or Montana are not the kind that Democrats need to regain control of the House. Indeed, none have been held this century by the Democratic Party, and each was won by a Republican candidate last year by at least 15 points.

But they’ve been made competitive in part because of President Trump’s rough start in office. The Republican leaders approval ratings have hovered in the high 30s and low 40s, according to most polls, an unprecedented (in modern times, at least) unpopularity this early into a new president’s administration.

His early failure to secure enough support to pass the GOP healthcare plan didn’t help, say Republican operatives.

“Republicans have stumbled out of the starting line,” said Tom Davis, former chairman of the the House GOP’s political arm, the National Republican Congressional Committee. “They couldn’t get their health care bill and the president has had a problem with executive orders. They’re explainable mistakes, but they’re beginner's missteps as they transition from an opposition party to a governing party.

“They gotta be careful, or they’ll be an opposition party again,” he added.

The special election in Georgia has sopped up most of the attention so far this year, as it was expected to be the first bellwether race of the Trump era. Of the three, it’s also the one Democrats have felt most confident they could win, thanks to Democratic contender Jon Ossoff and the more than $8 million his campaign has raised.

He runs next week in an 18-candidate race in the northern Atlanta suburbs; the top two vote-getters in that race will advance to a June run-off if no candidate clear a 50 percent threshold.

Next month, Montana will hold a special House election that includes the entire state.

Davis and others caution against over-interpreting the results of a special election. History says they have good reason to do so: In recent election cycles, the races have often been poor indicators of the coming election’s results.

In 2011, for instance, Republicans won a special election in heavily Democratic Queens -- a year later, President Obama and congressional Democrats had a strong election. And in 2010, Democrats won a contested race in western Pennsylvania for the seat of the late Rep. John Murtha -- Republicans still won a massive 63 House seats in the midterm elections a few months later.

Special elections are low turnout, and the product of political forces that might not be present weeks later, much less 19 months.

“Much like polls are a snapshot in time, so are special elections,” Lake said.

And in Kansas, Republicans have also complained that Estes has run a lackluster campaign, and they point out that the state’s Republican governor, Sam Brownback, is deeply unpopular and was the frequent target of attacks during the race.

Still, Republicans say the problems are rooted in more than just these races. The biggest problem, in their eyes, is how energized Democratic voters are.

Two Republicans strategists familiar with polling data in two of the special election races say the main problem is not that independents and moderate voters have swung en masse to Democrats.

The problem, they say, is the Democratic base is so energized that even voters who rarely pay attention to politics are suddenly engaged. One GOP operative familiar with the special elections said the GOP realized there might be a problem when polling found that even low-propensity Democratic voters were interested in the race.

Another House Republican strategist said the Democratic base is so motivated, it doesn’t make sense to run attack ads because it will further incite those voters.

It’s a common dynamic after a party wins an election: Its voters get complacent while the other party’s voters get mad.

“You’ve won so you’re people are sitting back, fat and happy,” Davis said. “And Democrats are angry.”

Democrats are hopeful that strong results in Kansas, Georgia, and Montana will help motivate potential House candidates to enter the race -- while discouraging Republican candidates who might fear running in a tough political environment.

“You have enough data points now that you can now plot a trajectory of the election cycle, and it’s very positive for Democrats,” said Ian Russell, a former political director for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the House Democrats’ political arm.

Democrats need to win a net of 24 seats in the House to retake a majority in 2019. The margin is smaller in the Senate, where Democrats would need to win a net of only three seats.

But Democrats are stuck defending 10 seats in states President Trump won last year, while the party can target only one Republican-held seat in a state won by Hillary Clinton.

Even Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell, in an interview last week, warned that the party’s Senate majority might not be safe next year despite a favorable lineup of elections in red states.

"If you look at what happened to [former President] Bill Clinton two years in, what happened to [former President] Barack Obama two years in, I'd like to see the president in better shape politically," McConnell told the Washington Examiner.

Alex Roarty: 202-383-6173, @Alex_Roarty