Saturday, June 24, 2017
The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia
Unless you've been hiding under a rock, you must know that there was a special election in Georgia's Sixth Congressional District this week.
The district has been in Republican hands for nearly 40 years.
Democrats have been eager to anoint the new House majority that they expect after the midterm elections in 2018, and every special election to fill a vacancy that was created when President Trump tapped someone to join his administration has been billed as a preview of coming attractions. After Democrat Jon Ossoff grabbed 48% of the vote in April's so–called "jungle primary" in the Georgia Sixth, millions of Democrat dollars flowed into the district from out of state, much of it from as far away as San Francisco, for the June 20 runoff.
There were high expectations. As it was in most of last year's Republican presidential primaries, Trump has emerged the winner in every special election so far. The margins have been narrow, but close doesn't count. Democrats were hungry for a victory.
And Democrats, who have gone into each contest convinced that public resistance to Trump and the Republicans was just waiting to rise up and be counted, are sounding like the fabled boy who cried "Wolf!"
They have awfully short memories.
I don't know if Tip O'Neill was the first to say "All politics is local," but I know he used the phrase as the foundation of his campaign strategy — and he knew what he was talking about.
O'Neill, a Democrat and five–term speaker of the House, represented a House district in Massachusetts for more than 30 years and rarely faced a serious challenge when he ran for re–election. In that sense, there was nothing particularly remarkable about his re–election in 1982.
But it was only two years, after all, since Ronald Reagan's landslide victory over Jimmy Carter, and the presidency wasn't the only thing the Democrats lost. After more than a quarter of a century of being in the majority in the Senate, Democrats had lost that majority, and their majority in the House was drastically reduced — by nearly three dozen seats. To say there was a certain amount of anxiety among Democrats at that time would be an understatement.
There needn't have been.
The elections in 1982 were the midterms of Reagan's first term as president — and a clear pattern of American political history is that midterms in general almost always favor the out–of–power party. We've grown accustomed in recent times to the possibility that a president's party might not lose ground in one or both of the chambers of Congress in a midterm election, but that is a rare phenomenon that usually requires unique circumstances.
George W. Bush's Republicans, for example, benefited in 2002 from the national mood following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, winning two Senate seats and eight House seats. It was the first time in nearly 70 years that a president's party gained ground in both chambers of Congress in a midterm election.
You have to go back to the 1930s — when America was in the grip of the Great Depression — to find the previous example of a time when the president's party prospered in both chambers in a midterm election. In 1934, Franklin D. Roosevelt's Democrats picked up 10 Senate seats (at a time when there were only 96 members of the Senate) and nine House seats. (FDR's midterms of 1938 and 1942 went against the president's party, and what would have been his fourth midterm, which he did not live to see, was a total disaster for his successor, Harry Truman, in 1946.)
While 9/11 is often compared to Pearl Harbor, FDR did not benefit the way Bush did 60 years later. In the 1942 midterms FDR's Democrats lost nine Senate seats and 45 House seats. In spite of what had happened in Hawaii less than a year earlier, voters were anxious about American involvement in World War II.
In the last century, a few presidents have seen their party make midterm gains in one chamber but not both.
Bill Clinton's Democrats benefited in 1998 from a national backlash against the Republicans' partisan impeachment proceedings. They neither won nor lost seats in the Senate, but they won four seats in the House.
Richard Nixon's Republicans lost 12 House seats but won two Senate seats in the midterms of 1970. There was still a certain amount of backlash against the Vietnam War and the Democrats' participation in its escalation.
In 1962 John F. Kennedy's Democrats gained ground in the Senate but lost ground in the House. The Cuban Missile Crisis, which occurred a few weeks before the election, may well have played a role.
In 1914, Woodrow Wilson's Democrats gained five seats in the Senate but lost a staggering 59 seats in the House. The Republicans were more united than they had been in 1912 — when the party's two factions, led by former Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft in the 1912 presidential election, reunited with a common purpose. They also gave themselves pats on the back for the booming economy — the result, they told the voters, of policies passed by Republicans in the previous quarter of a century.
Eight years before that, Teddy Roosevelt's Republicans gained seats in the Senate but lost seats in the House (although they retained a significant majority).
I could go on, but you get the idea, don't you? (Those were the best midterm years for incumbents in the last 110 years, and, in 2017, Democrats have seen the special elections to replace members of the House who were picked to join the Trump administration as targets of opportunity. Sort of a kickoff to the resounding rejection they are certain Republicans will receive next year. Only one real problem with that line of thinking — Republicans have won every special election this year. If you want to have a revolution, you have to have some victories.)
But back to O'Neill.
Even with that history, Democrats were edgy heading into the 1982 midterms. And O'Neill, facing a challenge from a Massachusetts lawyer whose campaign was being financed by out–of–state contributors (primarily oil interests in Oklahoma and Texas), emphasized that point in his campaign.
In November O'Neill won with 75% of the vote, and Democrats recaptured more than two dozen seats in the House, padding the majority they had held since 1955.
But going into that election year, Democrats were anxious. They had taken a beating two years earlier, and, even though O'Neill had won 15 straight congressional races, he was a consummate politician who knew all too well that Massachusetts — the only state to reject Nixon's bid for a second term in 1972 — had voted (narrowly) for Reagan in 1980 (Massachusetts voted for Reagan again in 1984). Was it a symptom of an emerging shift to the right in a state long known for its liberal politics?
Reagan's approval rating in late 1982 was hovering around 40%. It went up when the economy started roaring back to life, but that was after the midterms.
In hindsight it is easy to see the uphill climb that was facing the Republicans in 1982, but it wasn't so easy to see from ground level at the time.
O'Neill took the campaign to the voters. The people who are backing the Republican in this race, he told the voters, don't live here, but they think they can tell you what to do. And he addressed the district's kitchen–table concerns while his opponent — and his opponent's backers — spoke about more national themes.
Does that sound familiar? Democrats wanted to make the Georgia election about cultural issues. The Republicans and their candidate, Karen Handel, wanted to make it about the issues that affected the daily lives of Georgians — taxes and jobs.
On top of that, Ossoff didn't even live in the district.
It wasn't surprising that he received about the same share of the vote that he received in the first vote.
Many Democrats were fooled into believing Ossoff had a good chance to win by his showing in that first vote. The previous congressman, now–Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, was re–elected there last year with more than 61% of the vote. Ossoff already had done better than any of Price's challengers.
Except in his first election.
Price needed a runoff to win the GOP nomination when his predecessor, now–Sen. Johnny Isakson, decided to run for the Senate. After winning the runoff, Price was unopposed in the general election. He won all his re–election bids without breaking a sweat.
And that is really what is so deceptive about special elections. They are held to fill vacancies — which means there is no incumbent.
Incumbents are notoriously difficult to defeat. They have all the advantages of incumbency at their disposal. Their primary obligation is to be aware of and responsive to the needs of a typically concentrated geographical area. As long as they do that, they tend to win re–election with little trouble.
The best chance to "flip" a House district usually comes when the seat is open.
I have heard all the talk of how Handel will face another tough challenge when she seeks a full term next year, but as long as she keeps her focus on her district, I predict that she will win re–election easily.
It's the way it is.