Rob Quist and his wife in
Helena, Montana.AP Photo/Bobby Caina
The Democratic Party is hoping to ride a wave of
anti-President Donald Trump fervor to win back control of the
House in the 2018 midterms.
But several unexpectedly close contests in the coming months
could foreshadow how difficult it will be to overcome
Republicans’ 44-seat majority.
Democrats are intensely watching four special elections that
begin this week to retake House seats vacated by
lawmakers who joined the Trump administration. The
first comes Tuesday in Kansas, to replace Mike Pompeo, now the
director of the CIA.
In the wake of a disastrous 2016 election cycle, Democratic
Party leaders pledged to compete harder in state and local
races, even in solid-red states.
Democrats involved in the races who spoke with Business Insider
acknowledged that all the races would be difficult — three of the
four seats have been held by Republicans for decades.
But party leaders are encouraged by polling in Georgia and
Kansas, as well as an energized party base that has
organized protests, flooded Congress with calls, and helped
organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union smash
“These congressional districts have been ruby red for decades,
and the fact that we are even discussing potentially competitive
races here demonstrates the power of the grassroots and
marks a big problem for House Republicans,” said Meredith Kelly,
the communications director for the Democratic Congressional
Republicans are taking the threat of upset victories in some
seemingly safe districts seriously.
A Republican operative familiar with the races said a major
concern for the GOP was that the party’s base could be
complacent after Trump’s victory.
“The energy we’ve seen, there’s been a slight downtick, which I
think is natural coming off a very contentious election that we
won,” the operative told Business Insider.
The operative added that the liberal opposition to Trump was
“energized from the get-go” and would be out in full force for
these upcoming elections. Republicans will have to ensure their
base is, as the operative said, “reengaged.”
Jesse Hunt, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional
Committee, told Business Insider the races would hinge
on “making sure Republican
voters understand what is at stake in all of these elections and
they get out to vote.”
“In an April special election,
turnout is critical,” Hunt said.
But turning out voters in high
numbers may prove difficult. Hunt said the NRCC was heavily focused
on “making sure those
voters know when that vote is taking place.”
What’s the matter with Kansas?
In the first of this year’s special elections,
Republicans have found themselves playing last-minute defense.
Kansas Democrats had considered the race for the seat
formerly held by Pompeo in the state’s 4th
Congressional District to be a long
shot — most polling before this week
showed that Republican Ron Estes was the
overwhelming favorite to win the Tuesday election over
Democrat James Thompson.
But recent polling has shown a much tighter
race than expected.
The DCCC on Monday announced its first investment: 25,000 live
get-out-the-vote calls to Democrats and independents in the
district on behalf of Thompson, an attorney and US
Republicans appeared concerned, too, buying TV ads in the state
for Estes, the state treasurer, and dispatching Texas Sen. Ted
Cruz to Wichita to stump for Estes. On Monday, Trump himself
recorded a robocall that went out to voters in the district.
“Republican Ron Estes needs your vote and needs it badly,”
Trump said in the call. “Our country needs
help. Ron is going to be helping us, big league.”
Last year, Pompeo crushed his opponent, Democrat Daniel Giroux,
by a 60%-to-30% spread. The district has been under Republican
control since 1995, and no Democrat has won a House election
there since 1992.
Thompson, who has tied himself closely to Sen. Bernie Sanders
of Vermont, clashed with the state party after it
declined to give his campaign $20,000,
according to The Wichita Eagle. The state party said it did
not have the necessary funding to provide him — it has limited
funds and hopes to compete in other state districts in 2018.
But Thompson made up some of the difference on his own.
In the final days of the campaign, the attorney saw a substantial
increase in fundraising. Thompson raised roughly $240,000 from
20,000 individual donations since late last week, The Huffington Post reported. The Democratic
National Committee also jumped into the race at its tail end,
sending robocalls recorded by Vice Chair Michael Blake.
All eyes on Georgia
The story in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District — where Trump’s
secretary of health and human services, Tom Price, held his House
seat — is Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff and his massive
In three months, the 30-year-old documentary filmmaker and former
congressional aide raised a whopping $8.3 million, vastly more
than most candidates running in major statewide
races. Ossoff’s fundraising haul was
more than any member of Congress had
raised over a two-year period since 2012 other than House Speaker
Paul Ryan and former House Speaker John Boehner.
Although Democrats haven’t won this House
seat since 1976 — it was occupied for
20 years by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich — Democrats and
Republicans view it as the most competitive race among the four
“You see $8.3 million, that’s a significant chunk that
somebody can run in their district,” said one GOP operative
familiar with the race. “Essentially, that’s what somebody
usually raises for a statewide campaign, not an off-year, early
The operative added that he hadn’t seen anything resembling that
level of fundraising in past special elections.
“It is a large amount of money from out-of-state donors who
are clearly very fired up about opposing Donald Trump,” he said.
“That’s very clear. The liberal base dislikes Donald
In addition to being well-funded, Ossoff is also heavily staffed.
The DCCC sent eight staffers to Georgia in March to help his
election efforts, bringing his total to 70 paid staffers and
2,000 volunteers. The DNC’s bylaws mandate that
the organization stay neutral during the primary, but the
committee is prepared to deploy staffers and high-profile
surrogates to the district for Ossoff if he finds himself in
a head-to-head runoff.
Another layer to this election is the sheer number of candidates
running — 11 Republicans and five Democrats. All candidates run
on one ballot for the special election, which will be held on
April 18. If no candidate clears 50%, the top two will
participate in a runoff election on June 20.
Ossoff, the Democratic candidate for Georgia’s 6th Congressional
While Ossoff, with deep pockets funded overwhelmingly from
out-of-state liberal donors eager to score a Trump-inspired
victory, is the most recognized Democrat, many of the Republicans
on the ballot have done little to provide themselves with any
separation from the others running.
“Not only is it a special election, but in Georgia, it’s a
‘jungle primary’ where you have a dozen Republican candidate and
you really only have one Democratic candidate, because he’s
consolidated all of the support,” the GOP operative said, adding
that they believe the candidate’s “floor” is in the mid-to-high
40s percentage-wise. “For all intents and purposes, he’s
the only Democrat running. With all of that money to be put into
ads, he’s the only one they’re hearing about.”
In last fall’s election, Price beat his Democratic challenger,
Rodney Stooksbury, by a large 62%-to-38% margin. But Democrats
are hoping that antipathy toward Trump, who won the state by a
much slimmer 51%-to-46% margin, can help turn the tide in the
An early April WXIA-TV Atlanta/Survey USA poll
showed Ossoff well ahead of the field with 43% support,
while the highest-polling GOP candidate, former Georgia Secretary
of State Karen Handel, registered at 15%. The poll showed that in
a head-to-head matchup, Ossoff would hold a slim
42.4%-to-41% advantage over Handel, whose her polling would
jump with consolidated GOP support behind her.
Republicans have attempted to paint Ossoff as a “far-left”
candidate who would be more loyal to House Minority Leader Nancy
Pelosi — an unpopular name in the district — than to local
voters. Republicans have pushed out a series of ads claiming that
Ossoff misrepresented some of his past foreign policy experience
while working on Capitol Hill.
Republicans are making a larger investment in the Georgia
race than the other three races.
“We’re obviously monitoring all of it closely, some closer
than others,” the Republican operative said. “We’ve obviously
made a greater investment in Georgia than we have in Montana or
Kansas. And then South Carolina as well.”
On to Montana…
Though he has stayed on the sidelines during this month’s
contests, Sanders told The Huffington Post this week that he
would campaign in May for another unconventional candidate
attempting to replicate the senator’s grassroots populist
style: Folk-singer Rob Quist.
Running on a promise to protect public lands and lobby for
affordable health insurance, the Montana bluegrass musician is
hoping to flip a seat that has voted Republican for 21-years in a
state that overwhelmingly voted to elect Trump.
Quist’s campaign has downplayed the party association, instead
focusing on local issues and attempting to cast his opponent
multimillionaire Greg Gianforte as a plutocrat, a tactic that
proved successful in the 2016 gubernatorial race against
Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock.
“Montanans roundly rejected Greg Gianforte back in November for
being out-of-touch, and given the chance, they’ll do it again,”
Quist spokesperson Tina Olechowski said.
The national Democratic organizations have largely stayed out of
the race: The Huffington Post previously reported
that the DCCC likely viewed the race as a lost cause, citing the
organization’s refusal to run ads in the state.
Two Democratic sources familiar with the
campaign said the party was hoping to deploy
high-profile surrogates to the district as the race winds down.
According to two Democrats familiar with the DCCC and the
Quist campaign’s thinking, the folk singer was hoping to cast
himself as an outsider from the party system regardless, focusing
on local issues rather than running to oppose Trump.
‘Make America America Again’ in South Carolina
The race in South Carolina’s 5th District is not as
favorable for Democrats — many officials acknowledged
privately that the June 20 contest is a major uphill battle,
which most analysts
have written-off entirely.
Democrat John Spratt previously held the district until
2010, when the Tea Party wave swept now-Office of Management and
Budget Director Mick Mulvaney into office. Redistricting in
2012 helped the district trend further red — Trump won the
5th by over 18 points, and Mulvaney won reelection by
The presumed Democratic frontrunner is Archie Parnell, a
senior Goldman Sachs adviser who was a former Capitol Hill
and Department of Justice staffer. Republicans are painting
themselves as Trump-style outsiders: Former Republican
party chairman Chad Connelly has praised Trump, while Sheri
Few’s campaign slogan is legitimately “Make
America America Again.”
Still, state Democrats are encouraged by the previous months of
aggressive grassroots demonstration of resistance to Trump’s
agenda. They’re hoping that Ossoff wins without a runoff,
signaling a potential Democratic wave with the help of more
volunteers, money, and attention.
“Ever since millions of Americans came out for the Women’s March,
it has been clear that people in every part of the country have
serious concerns with the direction that Donald Trump and
congressional Republicans are taking the country,” South Carolina
Democratic Party spokesman Matthew Ellison said. “Voters are
eager to register those concerns at the ballot box at first
opportunity. If Washington Republicans continue pursuing policies
to benefit themselves and their donors while harming everybody
else, no Republican seat will be safe.”
Parnell got a boost from Democratic presidential nominee Hillary
Clinton’s campaign manager, Robby Mook, who sent out an email
Monday on behalf of the South Carolina candidate.
“My start in politics was as grassroots as you can get:
campaigning for Democrats at the town dump,” Mook wrote in the
email, Politico Playbook reported. “Archie Parnell is running for
the seat that John Spratt held when I first started working on
Congressional campaigns, a seat that Democrats had held for over