Democrats are about to find out how far anger can take them.
Since President Donald Trump’s inauguration, Democratic voters’ hostility toward the new administration has been evident in national polling, in rallies and protests in cities, airports and on social media.
But outside of a handful of small legislative races over the past four months, there hasn’t been a true test of the new, Trump-driven political dynamic at the ballot box. Tuesday, however, begins a series of special elections that will examine whether increased Democratic enthusiasm can deal Trump stinging defeats and reshape the narrative a year-and-a-half before the midterms.
The first race is Tuesday in Kansas’ 4th Congressional District — an otherwise solidly Republican seat that has been threatened by increased fervor among Democratic voters, Trump’s rocky start in the White House and a deeply unpopular GOP governor in Topeka. Democrats are unlikely to win in a seat Trump carried last fall by 27 percentage points, but a close result could send shivers up the spines of Republican lawmakers in more competitive districts.
Next Tuesday’s election in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District has drawn far more attention and campaign spending, and Democratic hopes are brighter there. Though the seat has been reliably Republican in previous elections — and now-Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price was easily reelected last year — Trump only narrowly edged Hillary Clinton there, dogged by his weakness among more-educated GOP voters in the Atlanta suburbs.
While the first votes won’t be tallied until later Tuesday, both parties have been scrutinizing early- and absentee-voting statistics for clues about whether Democrats can spring upsets in the two districts, or whether Republicans can match the tide of Democratic enthusiasm and keep Trump’s agenda on track.
“There’s a clear surge in Democratic intensity” in the early-vote data, “above and beyond history and past precedent,” said Tom Bonier, the CEO of the Democratic data firm TargetSmart. “It compares not just favorably from an incremental perspective; it’s a significant surge in Democratic turnout in both districts.”
It’s possibly a local manifestation of a national pattern: After years of relative apathy under former President Barack Obama, Democrats are more energized in their opposition to Trump. And Republicans and Trump supporters, national polls show, are less enthusiastic about the president than his critics are.
Last week’s POLITICO/Morning Consult poll pegged Trump at 46 percent approval to 48 percent disapproval among registered voters. While that’s a better result for Trump than other national surveys — which show the president significantly more unpopular — it still points to a yawning enthusiasm gap.
Most of those who disapproved of Trump in the poll did so strongly, while Trump’s supporters were more muted. Overall, 36 percent of voters strongly disapproved of Trump — while only 23 percent strongly approved. Nearly two-thirds of Democratic voters, 65 percent, strongly disapproved of Trump — but fewer than half of GOP voters, 45 percent, strongly approved.
Tuesday’s election in Kansas is the first test of whether this intense opposition will translate into votes. Democrats ran only slightly behind Republicans in early and absentee voting — in contrast to the overwhelming GOP registration advantage in the district, which comprises much of southern Kansas, including the Wichita headquarters of Koch Industries.
But the vast majority of voters will turn out on Tuesday — and Bonier, the Democratic data consultant, is admittedly “gun-shy” about drawing conclusions from absentee-voting figures.
“The early-vote numbers did show some great promise for Secretary Clinton. But she got swamped on Election Day,” Bonier said, conceding that there was some softness in African-American turnout in early voting last year, along with increased Latino turnout. “And so I personally feel a little bit gun-shy about making any predictions based on patterns in the early vote.”
Democrats, for their part, aren’t predicting victory, even if the campaign manager for James Thompson, the Democratic nominee, told POLITICO Campaign Pro on Monday that the race is “neck-and-neck.”
But the party is taking solace in the effort expended by Republicans to keep the seat vacated by Mike Pompeo after he was confirmed as director of the Central Intelligence Agency. The National Republican Congressional Committee shelled out nearly $100,000 in advertising last week to boost Republican Ron Estes. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) was on the ground on Monday to campaign with Estes. And both Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have recorded robocalls directed at GOP voters to generate excitement and turnout for Tuesday’s election — an effort that continued on the president’s much-followed Twitter account Tuesday morning.
“Ron Estes is running TODAY for Congress in the Great State of Kansas,” Trump tweeted just before 8 a.m. Central Time. “A wonderful guy, I need his help on Healthcare & Tax Cuts (Reform).”
Next week’s race in Georgia is a more realistic target for Democrats, though it involves a number of dynamics that diverge from Kansas. Unlike the Kansas seat, there was a notable split between the presidential and congressional races in Georgia last fall: Price won reelection easily, even as Trump carried the district only narrowly, 48 percent to 47 percent.
Moreover, the mechanics of next week’s election in Georgia’s 6th District, in the northern suburbs of Atlanta, are different. Unlike in Kansas, where both parties picked the nominees in internal gatherings, there are 18 candidates on the ballot in Georgia: 11 Republicans, 5 Democrats and 2 unaffiliated candidates.
If no candidate captures a majority of the vote next Tuesday, the top two finishers will meet in a runoff in June. But some public polls of the race show Jon Ossoff, the leading Democrat, within 10 points of clinching the seat outright.
Ossoff, a 30-year-old former congressional aide, raised more $8.3 million for the race through March 29, according to paperwork filed with the Federal Election Commission last week — with $5.6 million of that coming from small-dollar contributions, another indication of Democratic enthusiasm nationally.
Ossoff’s position and fundraising has led to millions of dollars in spending by GOP outside groups, including the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC linked to House Republican leadership. Congressional Leadership Fund says it is spending nearly $3 million to knock Ossoff, even though it isn’t urging voters to support a specific GOP candidate among the 11 on the ballot.
The group’s playbook isn’t to urge voters there to back a Republican as an expression of support for Trump and his agenda, however — it’s to tie Ossoff, a 30-year-old former congressional staffer, to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
“Georgians in the [6th District] deserve a representative who advocates on behalf of their values, not on behalf of Nancy Pelosi and her out-of-touch, failed liberal policies,” Corry Bliss, the group’s executive director, said in a statement accompanying its latest radio ad, a testimonial from Betty Price – the former congressman’s wife — that doesn’t mention Trump or Tom Price’s current role in the administration.
National Democrats are more active in the Georgia race. A memorandum penned Monday by Meredith Kelly, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s communications director, touted the group’s radio and digital advertising and direct-mail programs — spending "focused on expanding the voting universe and increasing Democratic turnout far beyond what this district has seen in past primary elections," Kelly wrote.
Following the Georgia vote is a contested race for Montana’s at-large congressional seat on May 25, a possible runoff in Georgia on June 20, and gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia in November — all tests of whether the anti-Trump energy will equal votes, and whether it can be sustained into next year’s midterm elections.